Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Uncertainty and Grace

I've developed a possibly unhealthy habit of reading advice columns. It start with Dear Prudie at Slate and has kind of grown from there. I suppose as habits go, there are worse ones.

Anyway, I was reading an advice column the other day, as I do, and there was a letter from a woman whose husband was considering petitioning for custody of his sister's kids, since said sister is in the habit of abandoning the kids with them, anyway. (OK, fine: I went and found the actual column so you can read it, too, if you want. Beware: these columns are addictive.)

There are some lines in that column that has stayed with me since I read it:

I’ve come to see “how I saw us ______,” whether it’s “building our family” or “starting our careers” — or any future we envision — as a false promise at best. We can want and dream and plan, but life always gets its say. Always.
And so I see the path to happiness not as the milestones we strive for, but as a mind open to the opportunities, even beauty, in what we receive.

I love that concept, the idea that the way to happiness in life is to learn to accept the randomness of it, the uncertainty about what might come — and to commit to the idea that you will look for the beauty in what you receive.

Obviously, some things that we receive in life are harder to accept than others. There are things that could happen that I do not think I could see any beauty in. I am not especially prone to anxiety, but if I am going to spiral into an anxious fugue, it will usually be because my mind has started spooling out increasingly horrific "what if" scenarios.

So what I've been thinking about since I read that column is the idea that although I cannot know what life will hold for me, I can commit to try to accept what comes and build the best life I can from the circumstances I am given, and if possible, find the beauty in whatever comes.

So far, I have been given pretty good circumstances. I have no guarantee that will continue, and I can never have that guarantee. All I can do is try to plan in ways that favor a continuation of good circumstances, and that I hope would provide some buffer against bad circumstances.

I've been thinking about what it would take to really embrace that, and what, if anything, that would change about how I'm living my life. I don't have answers to those questions yet, but I'm finding them useful questions to think about.

I have also been thinking about how "happiness" seems like an inadequate word to describe a state in which you can accept what life brings and look for the beauty in it. The word that keeps coming to mind instead is "grace." I know that is not the Christian meaning of grace, but I don't think it is necessarily incompatible with that meaning. 

I've started a project of reading books that explore different aspects about what "a good life" looks like and how to have it. That project is quite stochastic. I add books to my reading list as I come across them, and my scope for what fits is quite broad. Maybe the common thread among them is a search for a secular form of a grace, a way to find and embrace the beauty in our imperfect world and to build the most we can out of our imperfect, uncertain lives.

12 comments:

  1. This was really beautiful. I hope you share some of the books you are reading.

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    1. I am posting my thoughts about them at my real name blog and would love people to drop by and comment! Email me if you need the link. I post it here sporadically, but am trying to keep it so that this blog does not come up in a Google search of my real name (so far, so good!) The first one I read was Laura Vanderkam's latest, Off the Clock. The one I'm reading now is Lost Connections, by Johann Hari.

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  2. Alexicographer8:58 AM

    Interesting post. As I think you know, there is a well placed propensity in the infertility community (among, I think, many others) to decry the dreadful, dreaded, and untrue claim that "everything happens for a reason." Of course it does not. Yet I have long felt -- though we should be clear, my lived experience to date is a resource-rich and privileged one that has made this relatively easy, as compared to many others' experiences -- that the patent falseness and wrongness of that claim notwithstanding, to the extent that we can find ways to function "as if" there were good reasons for, or good things that might come out of, everything that happens, well, that is better than the alternative. Of course that does not make doing so easy, or even right.

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    1. Yeah, I can see why the "everything happens for a reason" line would really grate in some situations! And since I don't believe in God or fate or anything like that, I just don't believe it. I am aiming instead to just acknowledge that whatever has happened has happened and try to find the best I can in the situation. But, like you, I have to caveat that with the fact that nothing all that bad has happened to me, really.

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  3. Ever since I went off for two months on a stress leave at the end of 2016, my goal has been to practice living in the present. A book my therapist at the time recommended was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I'll be honest: I'm not a fan of Tolle in general, and I didn't read the whole thing. In fact, I listened to the audio book just to calm myself down (he has a very relaxing voice!), but his point that life is only happening RIGHT NOW stuck with me.

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    1. If I ever learn how to really live in the moment, I will consider that I have achieved great personal growth! I am better at it now than I was when I was in my 20s, but that's not really saying a lot.

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  4. Socal dendrite9:32 AM

    Ahem. I am (not terribly successfully) trying to wean myself off reading too many advice columns. But I read that particular one too and also thought the answer was remarkably beautiful.

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    1. They are so ridiculously addictive... At least they aren't fattening or otherwise bad for my health. Just bad for my time use!

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  5. Food for thought. I am generally an optimistic/anxious person. I agree with Alexicographer and generally felt annoyed living in LA with "everything happens for a reason" as a constant tag-line. And yet, I have bizarre spiritual beliefs about fate and magical thinking... and often things that I've wanted have turned out to be bad ideas and the universe seems to have better ideas for me (ex. me not getting jobs I would have taken that turned out to be terrible jobs for the person who got them). I dunno, I do a lot of blooming where I'm planted and fixing things around me into what I want if I didn't get what I wanted initially. I also like making contingency plans for multiple possible outcomes.

    Bottom-line: I am conflicted about fate and have been very lucky.

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    1. I like the "blooming where I'm planted" line!

      I can look back on my life and point to a couple places where different decisions on my part would have really changed things for me, perhaps for the better. And I can see those decisions were influenced by crappy things that should not have happened in a just world. But... I have a pretty nice life right now, and I can't change the past. So I try not to think about what might have been, and instead think about what still can be. I don't always succeed, but I usually do.

      Also, I can look back and point to a couple of places where I made decisions that really changed things for me, and I think they changed things for the better. I can never know for sure, of course, but I try to remember those times as much as I do the others.

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    2. I’ve got more: sunk cost! Learning experience! (Or, as my mom said, character building). Growth mindset! #blessed

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  6. I used to read binge-read those columns! Now I limit myself to smaller binges of Captain Awkward and Ask a Manager. At least I can pretend the latter is for professional development. It is, in part.

    I hate the "everything happens for a reason" line wholeheartedly but if you remove that, I accept that everything that's happened in our lives til now has been part of making me who I am today, and I like who I am today. That doesn't mean I'll allow anyone to ascribe a "good reason" to my brother and father's NPD-type behaviors and selfishness that ate up decades of my life or Mom's suffering for years before dying ignominiously without ever meeting her grandchild, among other things, but I won't discount them as factors in building my character.

    I've been lucky enough to be able to make the most of whatever situations I've been in and become what I think is a better person. I have to keep doing that.

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