Monthly Archives: September 2016

Our deepest joy is only as deep as our deepest grief

I’ve been having a rich and full year, the most full of my life. It’s been filled with love and grief, with listening and learning. I’ve been thinking a lot, I’ve made some sense of my experience and come to a conclusion I can’t escape: it’s good to embrace grief and heartbreak.

Perhaps that sounds masochistic or just plain nuts. Allow me to explain. The experience began in November 2015. I went to listen to Stephen Jenkinson speak, not far from my home in Wales. At the end of the day, I shook Stephen’s hand and thanked him for ruining my life, for shaking me up so much when I thought I was approaching an age for settling down a bit. What I particularly took from that day was the thought that the more I embrace the inevitability of my death and the death of my loved ones, the more I will be able to love life.

It fits well with Francis Weller’s First Gate of Grief: Everything You Love, You Lose. It might be possible to avoid grief by loving nothing & no one. Which sounds like a recipe for a bleak life of depression & despair. Or we can love wholeheartedly, and embrace the inevitability of losing those we love, right up until our own life slips away.

This all became a lot more real only a month later when my dear friend and housemate LJ was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Being beside my friend in her dying time was a sad, painful, joyous and precious experience, the most precious time of my life. I surprised myself by showing up in a way that was a rejection of what I had been brought up with. Coming from a dull, middle class English family who shun strong emotion, my upbringing told me to keep some emotional distance between myself and my dying friend. Instead, I chose the opposite, I chose to lean in to the experience, to lean into love knowing I was also choosing heartbreak. And by the middle of January, when LJ returned from her last holiday, I knew my love had grown, that I really had chosen the way of love & grief.

LJ died on Good Friday 2016, at the home we shared, in her own bed with two friends beside her, and me in the next room (we had agreed only two of us at a time with LJ — she didn’t enjoy more people). I her final days, she received wonderful care from friends, her doctor, Paul Sartori Foundation “Hospice at Home” & the district nurses.

The evening before, and only a few hours before she fell into unconsciousness, LJ & I connected in a way that is unique for me. I didn’t intend or plan this. I went to sit with her for a while. Knowing she enjoyed company and didn’t enjoy hearing people speak, I chose to sit silently and try to remain present to my friend. What happened next was so far outside my experience, it took a while to make sense of it. We spent about two hours in deep, radically trusting connection, and I experienced something which I will call “love without attachment”. The  experience of these two hours are the most precious of my life so far. I am sure my friend died knowing she was loved.

I wept easily in the days after LJ died. I got more deeply in touch with my grief a few weeks later with friends while I was in Mallorca. Here, I found all of it, and I howled like a wounded animal. I beautiful, precious and painful experience. Grief, someone said, is a way of loving.

So in the first few months of 2016, the deepest connection, gentlest love and the deepest grief I have experienced. Not a coincidence, I’m sure. We can’t selectively numb ourselves — our deepest joy is only as deep as our deepest grief. We can have neither or both.

My suggestion? Show up wholeheartedly for all of it: love, joy, grief and heartbreak. Yes, it’ll hurt sometimes. And the love might be exquisite.

Personal heroism

I had a moment of inspiration a while ago. It’s been running around my mind ever since. I applied this to gaining understanding of a personal experience, and I think it will be useful to others. Actually, I think it’s such a good idea, someone has probably thought of it already.

If we compare ourselves to others, we could easily miss our finest hour, our moment of personal heroism. If I think I did something brave, my next thoughts might be of someone I saw on TV rescuing a family from a car sinking into a river, or of a firefighter risking her life to bring children from a burning building. Not all acts of heroism will be famous. We won’t all get on TV or into the papers. And yet, for some, leaving the house will take as much courage as it takes for a firefighter to run into a burning building.

I have a suggestion for a way to examine our moments of personal heroism, the times when we act from our values, even knowing there is a risk to ourselves.

The American scholar Joseph Campbell identified a narrative structure that appears in almost all myths, legends and old stories, and a lot of newer stories as well. He called it The Hero’s Journey. I’m going to borrow a simplified version from Erica Sosna’s excellent book Your Life Plan. In this version, the journey has these stages:

  • The invitation to adventure.
  • The commitment: stepping into the unknown.
  • The quest: challenges, obstacles, setbacks, victory (or failure).
  • The return: the hero returns, transformed by the quest.

Here is a way we can tell our stories of heroism to ourselves, and if we choose, to trusted friends. Your story doesn’t have to be a literal journey. It may have taken place in familiar locations, perhaps even in your own home. The difference could have been in your mind, your attitude and perhaps no one noticed any change.

The invitation

How does your story begin? How were you invited to this journey? How did you decide to accept the invitation? How difficult was it? How long did the decision take? Did you consider refusing? What dangers did you anticipate?

The danger could be emotional or physical. For example, if we commit ourselves to a love affair, we open ourselves to heartbreak.

The Commitment

How did you step into the unknown? What did you leave behind? How different was the new? Did you find it frightening, or exciting, or something else? What other emotions arose?

The Quest

What challenges did you face? What obstructions? Did anyone try to discourage you? Were there any allies helping? Any thoughts, books or objects that helped?

Were you victorious?

The Return

How were you transformed by the journey? What did you learn? What did you lose? Are you glad you made the journey? What would things be like if you hadn’t? Do you have any regrets? What feelings arise when you think about your story?