“Be free where you are.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
Have you ever thought about the way we cling to the idea of perfect? A perfect body. Perfect teeth. Perfect home. Perfect marriage. Perfect life.
We want the new car smell to last forever. The wedding party to keep going. Our children to stay tiny and sweet. Our friendships to be eternal. In the midst of the honeymoon stage, we forget that the lust we feel for a person who still has the ability to surprise us is a fleeting experience– vapor in the grand scheme of our lives. Long-lasting relationships are forged somewhere in the middle of the good, bad, and ugly. It does not happen in perfection.
Eventually the new car will get scratched and your kid will spill something in the backseat that will ferment and give off a mysterious odor you’re too tired to track down. Young children who once begged to sleep in your bed at night will grow into teenagers who don’t want to talk to you. Friendships will fade, and the significant other who used to give you the butterflies in your stomach might have become a person you can’t stand.
If you can recognize yourself in any of this, you are not alone.
Several weeks ago we did an exercise during the adult study at my temple. It was specifically about bullying. We were instructed to take a piece of paper and crumple it up, and then unfold it and inspect the damage, reflecting about whether or not we could erase the creases and crumples. We had to apologize to the paper– and mean it. Then, we had to think about whether or not our apology fixed the paper. The answer, of course, was “no.” Even if we were truly remorseful for our actions, there was nothing we could do to erase the scars.
Although the exercise was about bullying, it made me think about how we are all crumpled papers. We each carry around the creases of our past– reminders of the painful experiences and of the people who hurt us throughout our lives. Many of these scars are invisible to others, but they are an integral part of who we are, and we spend our lives trying to reconcile the details of our past.
Despite the fact that we all bear the imperfections and battle scars of being a human being, we are still socially conditioned to believe pristine is better. Perfect is ideal. A clean, crisp white paper is what we want to write on–not a crumpled one. We often assume that everyone else’s papers are perfect, and that only we are flawed. As such, we feel compelled to hide the unsightly parts of who we are. We don’t want other people to see any evidence of our vulnerability. Those scars can often elicit feelings of a deep shame.
This is a huge problem for us human beings. We are programmed by society with unrealistic expectations about the reality of life. We adopt impossible standards to measure our self-worth, and we become unforgiving of human flaws and weaknesses, particularly of our own.
There is a word in Japanese that celebrates imperfections: wabi-sabi. In the Japanese art of kintsugi, gold lacquer is used to glue together the shards of broken pottery. The repaired object is considered beautiful. In the Western world, we probably would have just thrown away a broken ceramic bowl, and we certainly wouldn’t view it as something worth admiring. At its core, the concept of wabi-sabi is about the acceptance of life being impermant. Things will break. We will break. Here today, gone tomorrow. This is the way of the natural world. Our reality. Nothing is supposed to last forever.
You are a crumpled paper. No paper in the history of papers can stay unscathed by time. It is a fruitless battle to try to live life without scars. If you have breath in your lungs and blood pumping through your veins, you will inevitably experience pain.
This is the price we pay for being alive.
We don’t have gold lacquer to use on our wounds like a kintsugi ceramic bowl, but we do have something powerful to use. It’s probably our single most important superpower as human beings– the backbone of our resilience– and a required component of happiness.
This would be our thoughts.
What we think.
What we focus on.
Our hopes and dreams and desires.
The way we internalize what happens to us.
What we do with information.
How we digest life.
Our thoughts are everything, and they can make or break us.
One of the most difficult parts of being alive is dealing with the realities we did not choose. The circumstances we did not ask for. The ones we did not deserve. The problems that arose despite our best efforts. Life that did not go as planned.
The most we can do is to try to make good choices with the information we have in the present moment and do our best. I don’t think that means resigning yourself to a life you don’t want. Rather, it’s about letting go of what can not be changed, and being strategic about what you can change.
Being kind to ourselves, and recognizing when a toxic feeling permeates our consciousness. Letting the negative thoughts pass through us instead of tightening our grip around something we do not want.
Using our energy in a way that allows us to live a life we enjoy, instead of draining ourselves and being miserable.
I often think about this Dalai Lama quote: 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.
Although there is so much we can’t control in life, we have the ability to choose our reactions to the external stimuli.
We can rein in our negative self-talk.
Be mindful of the ways that we feel sorry for ourselves.
Eliminate how we tell ourselves that we can’t do something. Or that we’re not good enough. Or that we deserved it.
We can use our thoughts to shut out the ways other people and society tell us we aren’t good enough. Or that we can’t. Or shouldn’t.
We can use our thoughts to stop feeling guilty.
The creases and scars will still be there. They always will be– we can’t change what has already happened. But we can choose how we internalize real life, and we can adjust our expectations and perceptions.
“Your happiness depends upon your very own thoughts. Deliberately think thoughts of what you want.” -Rhonda Byrne
Of course, it’s easier said than done. Your thoughts require 24/7 monitoring. The ups and downs are inevitable and normal. It’s kind of like the stock market. There will be highs and lows, but ultimately if your market return over time is strong, then you have a good portfolio. Your lows don’t define you. A strong portfolio can still have bad days.
Recently I saw someone who I hadn’t seen in a while. The person commented on how happy I looked. “Really, you look very happy. It’s in your face,” the person said. This person knew me before my husband died. They also remember me after his death. And then the me right now. Three very different versions of Teresa.
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” I said in response. That seems to be my knee-jerk, self-deprecating way of reminding myself that I really shouldn’t be happy. Not with my circumstances. Definitely not a person like me.
I have these thoughts even when I know better. I tear myself down even when I am conscious of the fact that I am having negative thoughts that will hurt me. Even when I know what to do. I am armed with tools to stop downward spirals, and yet I still sometimes wander into those negative traps.
I scolded myself in my head. STOP IT, Teresa. You don’t have to meet certain requirements to qualify. You get to choose. You can be whatever you think you are.
I included a recent picture of my family in this essay. Look at us– we are happy. It was a beautiful spring evening, and we had just spent a couple days at a hotel and an amusement park, doing happy family things. We are standing in a field with blooming flowers and fresh air and a sorbet-colored sun setting over the hills with dramatic, romantic natural light.
There was a (long) time when I looked at pictures of our family of four and saw nothing but brokenness. I fixated on the husband and father who was not in the picture. I worried how I would be perceived by the rest of the world as a widowed single mother. I hated that our family didn’t look like other people’s intact families. My mind focused on the million reasons why it was unfair.
But I don’t see those things anymore. Over time, I’ve made a conscious decision not to care about those things.
In that picture, I only see mismatched outfits due to stubborn, happy little kids who aren’t afraid to assert their opinions and authority over decisions related to their bodies. I see that we are healthy and content and taken care of in this life– at least right now.
And that’s all I can worry about: what is happening right now. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is unknown. But right now, we are happy.
The human experience is a journey. It can not be encapsulated in a single moment. We each have an unknown expiration date looming on the horizon, at which point our journey will come to an end. In our limited time as sentient beings, we might as well make the most out of this opportunity to be alive, despite the creases and crumples– or maybe because of it.