What if my sensitivity is the road home?

I wanted her to see that the only life worth living is a life full of love; that loss is always part of the equation; that love and loss conjoined are the best opportunity we get to live fully, to be our strongest, our most compassionate, our most graceful selves.
-Pam Houston

I was thinking this weekend of the universality of sadness, of the inescapable fact that the sunshine of every life is mottled with shadow.  I think the thing that varies is our sensitivity to the shadow.  Some of us are just feel more keenly the loss that is always part of the deal.  Some of us are more prone to shadow than sun.  Some of us have a narrow but deep moat of loneliness around our hearts which is uncrossable by anyone else.

I love Pam Houston’s confident assertion that this awareness of loss lends itself to strength, compassion, and grace.  I spend a lot of time worrying about what I have bequeathed to my children, through example and heredity.  Pam Houston’s words offer a stunning change of perspective and I can imagine – momentarily – that this inheritance is a gift and not a burden.  What if, as Adrienne Rich said, “her wounds came from the same source as her power”?  What if what seems like great weakness is the source of great strength?

I fret about the message I’m sending my children by not hiding from them my occasional sweeping sorrow.  Sure, there are days I act happy when I feel blue.  And of course there are genuinely joyful days, many, many of them.  But there are also days where my eyes unexpectedly fill with tears and when they ask why I explain, quietly, that the world is making me sad.  I just re-read my words about a particularly sad weekend Grace had last winter and cried, again, struck by the fact that already, at seven, she has the self-awareness to say “I’m just sad, Mum.”  Actually it’s more than the awareness that strikes me: she has the propensity to be just sad in the first place, and this is clearly part of the legacy I leave her.  I often feel soggy with guilt about it.

Grace and Whit both witness and inherit my melancholy leanings, though so far Grace exhibits them much more frequently.  I have decided, personally, that to teach them to honor and accept all of their feelings, even the difficult ones, is more important than to put on a happy face all the time.  Of course, I am not sure I’d actually be able to fake it, so it might be convenient to call this a “decision.”  But I do believe that helping my children to recognize their strong emotions, even sadness and anger, is an important thing for me to do.  I also think there is great power in learning that one can be thoroughly tossed around in emotional whitewater and still come out the other side, spluttering, maybe, with sand in your pants, but still, standing.

In fact the words I wrote in July (in my musing on whitewater) seem to echo Pam Houston’s gorgeous lines (though less elegantly):

I know the terms I want to live my life by start with compassion and empathy and kindness, and that they include a deep need to honor the reality, savage and beautiful as it is, of my life.

It makes me sigh with comfort to weave together my own definition of what matters most and Pam Houston’s belief that awareness of loss can contribute to a fully-lived life.  It only comes in passing, this profoundly reassuring sense that my sensitivity, which marks how I approach everything, could be, in fact, my road home.  But in those moments I feel grateful and calm: maybe Grace and Whit can take what they learn from me and use it to be strong, and compassionate, and full of grace.

I do want my children to learn that the best lives are full of love, and that loss is part of the deal – I believe both of those things as firmly as I believe anything.  If I can do anything to help Grace and Whit believe this, through my example, my genetic material, or my direct teaching, then I will have done some good in the world.  Of that I am sure.


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14 Comments

  1. Christa
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    Lindsey, you are a treasure. Truly.

    Your children are blessed, as are those of us who amble forward through this life with you and your words accompanying us each day.

    Love to you.

  2. Posted October 5, 2010 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    It is such a joy to know that the sadness of life is real, and we can embrace it and make it part of us without feeling ashamed.
    For that alone, your children will thank you.

  3. Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Life would be easier if one were naturally sunny, but that’s not something we get to choose.

    There are habits that can decrease melancholy and increase happiness (the entire study of Positive Psychology is focused on this very question), but if you genuinely feel sad, you need to acknowledge that truth rather than covering up your feelings.

    Better to teach your children how to deal with sadness than to hide it.

  4. Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    If it could be measured I’m sure this post would weigh a ton. You really aren’t afraid of the hard questions, are you, Lindsey? I so respect that about you.

    I admire your acknowledgement of the sadness; your recognition that it isn’t ideal but your willingness to confront it head-on nonetheless. I don’t have your same propensity toward melancholy, so I have fewer worries about how to teach my kids about being at peace with their emotions. However, we all have sad days and I still have to teach them emotional awareness and acceptance; both for themselves and the people around them. Thanks for your perspective and guidance in this realm. It means a great deal to me.

  5. Posted October 5, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    If I ever needed confirmation that we are virtual soul sisters, it is this.

  6. Posted October 5, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    You are teaching them much about authenticity and wholeness. xo

  7. Posted October 5, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Yes–Grace and Whit will navigate their worlds with a full understanding of the always present yin and yang of their days. And I, too, am sure that you are just the amazing mother to show them their way home.

  8. Posted October 5, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    It’s a relief to read such a genuine acknowledgment of sadness – everyday sadness – just as many write about everyday happiness or everyday kindness.

    Some of us do have a propensity for sadness or melancholy, but it flowers into empathy and compassion as you so eloquently express.

    In a way, carrying the depth of sorrow also suggests capacity for the heights of joyfulness. We certainly appreciate those moments when we have them. And yes to this:

    “I do want my children to learn that the best lives are full of love, and that loss is part of the deal.”

  9. Posted October 5, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    “her wounds came from the same source as her power” This I believe. And more so if we learn to cultivate the power our wounds offer to us. This is pretty gut-wrenching and wonderful stuff.

  10. Posted October 5, 2010 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    That Pam Houston quote really hit home tonight. Thank you.

  11. Posted October 5, 2010 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    It takes great strength to gift our children with the knowledge that all of who they are is acceptable – Grace and Whit might have a propensity for melancholy, or they might simply be comfortable allowing it in a society where the darkness is so infrequently given room to breathe so that it may become light.

  12. Posted October 6, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I hear you on this, I feel this… and I keep reminding myself that I am not my feelings, I have them, but they are not me (they are of me, and I must taste them all fully). I also keep reminding myself that I already am home. The road leads where others have gone, and there is comfort in it; still the wild bramble is where we are truly home… and home alone at that. But like frogs we can call out to each other from our place in the thicket.

  13. Posted October 6, 2010 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    Oh. Yes. Indeed.
    You have a talent.

  14. Kate
    Posted May 31, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    This post reminds me of Joshua Wolf Shenk s book called Lincoln s Melancholy. It was an amazingly well thought out and well written book in its entirety but one of my favorite parts was how he made a compelling case that Lincoln s sensitivity contributed to his melancholy but was also part of his greatness. Sometimes being compassionate and feeling things deeply can take its toll but to be compassionate and feel deeply even when it’s painful can be an act of courage.

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