Who are you?
In essence, that’s the question I asked my high-school junior over and over again during last weekend’s trip to visit colleges in Boston.
“Are you the kind of kid who…”
“Do you like…”
“What do you think you want?”
Even though we had fun, cracking wise in the back of tour groups, recalling silly things from college tours past, the tenor of visiting higher institutions of learning with a child who is getting ready to apply to such institutions is, for lack of a better word, stressful!
As a middle-aged woman with many life decisions behind me, it is easy to say it will all work out fine, it will be what it will be, and he will make the best of it, whatever and wherever it is. And, of course, that is all true. But still.
I remember the anxiety of not knowing who you are and who you want to be. As any adult knows, those questions continue throughout your life, but at that beginning stage of figuring, you’re thinking that you and you alone are in charge of your own destiny.
It’s not easy. I try to be both sympathetic and reassuring. I don’t want to say, “Oh, poor you, this is so, so hard…” Just like my son lying about with broken limbs, I can’t fall into the land of negativity. It is easy enough to feel sorry for yourself about the difficulties you face, but the better choice is to see your life as a series of unfolding opportunities. Not being in control of your destiny can be a blessing. It means you just have to be open to what comes, and imagine that the path that gets laid is getting laid as you go, and can be shifted this way or that and you can learn to follow it around its many twisting curves.
I don’t know exactly who my kids are or what they want. They certainly don’t. What I do say to both my kids — and I mean it — is, “You are the kind of person who makes the best of whatever comes your way. You are the kind of person who can handle anything, and who will be stronger because of it.”
Ideally, that is true of all of us. Even the most successful people, the award winners and the valedictorians, the presidents and the principals and the popes among us, struggle at points with not knowing if what they’re doing is the right thing.
I remember being at a writing workshop at the Omega Institute, “Memoir as a Buddhist Practice.” We wrote and meditated and shared with one another. It was great.
There was one woman who was quite overweight. She sat in a chair instead of on a pillow on the floor. Apparently she was a minister of a parish in her town, but was leaving the ministry. She was, like many of us, trying to figure out the next steps.
When it was her turn to share, she said sadly how her whole life she’d been unsatisfied, how people had always told her she was unsatisfied. What was wrong with her, she wondered aloud to us all.
One of the teachers was a lovely Buddhist artist and art teacher, Rikki Asher. She looked at the woman with deep sympathy in her eyes.
“Do you know,” she asked, “who else was never satisfied?”
The woman shook her head.
“The Buddha,” Rikki said. “The Buddha was never satisfied.”
I think of that story all the time. It makes me feel better whenever I am trying to understand myself or help my children or family or friends understand themselves. It is a naturally occurring phenomenon that we face our lives with some confusion and worry, with some element of dissatisfaction that drives us to look at what might need to change.
The pounding of one’s heart that comes with excitement is the same pounding that occurs with nerves, and hopefully we are able to feel into that, to meet our lives and choices with some high-level of engagement and enthusiasm.
I hope my eyes are as lovely and kind as the teacher of that memoir class when I look at my children in these decisive times. I hope I can make them believe that it is wholly natural to be concerned, and yet remind them that they should also be excited and enjoy every moment.
Life is a super-cool journey that absolutely needs to be savored. Satisfaction signifies some sort of finality, so maybe better to just call every day an adventure, a challenge, an opportunity to live and breathe and move along to a great flowing rhythm, one not particularly of our own making.