suffering

The Permanence of Impermanence

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Saw this pink flamingo slowly dying on the street this morning. Wonder if someone is missing it? 

You have to pay attention because, if you don’t, you will miss the best things.

My mind has been parsing the notion of loss lately. I’m not talking only about losing a person or pet to disease or losing my children as they grow and become their own people, although these two particular losses have been weighing heavily on my heart recently. I’m also talking about losing things like my hair or the bottle of peppermint oil I had in my hand a minute ago or the astounding piece of wisdom I was about to share but which vaporized before I could pry it from my brain. I seem to be losing everything these days.

When the universe persists in presenting me with opportunities for growth, eventually I catch on to the pattern. And the current rate at which I have been facing loss has given rise to non-stop mulling about the loss and what loss even is and where it comes from and how I can best deal with it in the moment and how to survive it long-term and what I can learn from it to help me along my path. Searching for meaning is what I do as a double Gemini.

Buddhism teaches that suffering is a constant condition of the human experience, and our inability to deal with all types of suffering (from physical pain to the pain of persistent change to the pervasive conditioning that finds us repeating the same negative behaviors from which we need to escape) keeps us from experiencing true happiness. If you are born, you will suffer and you will die. It’s how we choose to approach suffering that determines the quality of life before we leave.

Loss is painful because we have a misguided notion we have some right to claim ownership. We don’t. We don’t own our bodies, we occupy them. We can’t keep them from aging or changing. We may be able to lessen the visible effects of our unhealthy behaviors and the constant pull of gravity and genetics, but we cannot stop our march towards death or the visible proof of that continual process. We don’t own others. They too have a timeline and will move through this life on their own path. Our inability to accept that life is transitory and that the people in our lives are as impermanent as we are creates a path to misery because loss of life is unavoidable. In the poignant words of Walter White, “Every life comes with a death sentence.” We don’t even own items we own. A burglar can take my computer. An auto accident can wreck my car. A fire can incinerate my home and everything inside it. And there is very little I can do about any of it, really.

This morning I looked out my bedroom window into the park-like backyard I am fortunate enough to enjoy. There were finches and nuthatches clinging to the feeder. Squirrels chasing each other around the tree trunk. A mouse scurrying away with a fallen bit of feed corn. A small bunny gnawing a dandelion. This is not the same bunny that inhabited our yard before (I will never forget you, wherever you are, Wobble Bunny), yet our yard still has a bunny. The dead squirrel we found last week has been replaced by another squirrel happy to stake his claim. The players are different but the play is the same. This, in a nutshell, is life.

Loss is certain. Change is inexorable. Pain is compulsory. How we approach and what we take from these guarantees is a choice. My children are almost grown, and I can wallow in sadness about their impending departure or I can appreciate them now. People I love will move on. My hair will get thinner. Items I have lost may show up eventually or they may not. But squandering time perseverating about the loss of people or belongings I could never stake claim to in the first place is useless. I am going to practice appreciating life and its players now. So, I am going to close up my computer, drag my sons out of their basement cave, and take them outside to appreciate the carousel of revolving life in our yard because the only loss I can avoid is a wasted opportunity to own the fullness of this moment just as it is.

Like Sands Through the Hour Glass…

Our water boy

Our water boy

Oh, boys. Today, Joe had a friend come over to hang out. Everything was going well until they decided to take a hockey stick and hit some home runs using Luke’s Lego models as the ball. The basement survived these antics, but of course the models did not. Luke, who was already feeling excluded and lonely, added furious to his list of emotions. We could not blame him. Demolishing Lego models, while impressive to friends, is not the way to keep peace with your younger brother. Now, we know that 1) Joe was just showing off for a friend and 2) his impulse control is not the best to begin with, but this was not the first time Joe has destroyed some of Luke’s Lego creations. He’s been punished for this infraction in the past. It hasn’t made an impression.

We decided to hold a family meeting over dinner to discuss what to do with the repeat offender. We offered Joe the opportunity to explain himself and argue his case. Then we asked Luke to rate his level of sadness about the loss of the models. With both boys still at the table, Steve and I began discussing punishments. Ultimately we decided that Joe would be allowed to rebuild the models to Luke’s satisfaction to lessen the duration of the punishment, which we determined was a week without his nightly baths.

Yes. It’s odd that our nearly 13-year-old son takes nightly baths in addition to his morning showers. As high as our water bills can be, it’s hard to complain that our son likes to be too clean because I’ve had the opportunity to catch of whiff of some other teenage boys and they smell. Badly. I write off Joe’s water obsession because he’s a Gemini with a Pisces ascendant and a Pisces moon, so water is his primary element. Joe says he’s water obsessed because he’s Sharkboy, and during the day he is just a fish out of water. We knew this would be a rough punishment, but we were determined to make it stick.

When we got home, Joe went to work rebuilding the models. He was able to fix one quite easily. The other one he recreated (albeit with modifications) to earn Luke’s stamp of approval. Joe came before the parole board, and we agreed to lessen his sentence to a meager two nights on Luke’s recommendation. (Luke, god bless his tender heart, hates to see Joe suffer.) The reduced sentence, which teetered on the edge of being way too lenient by our standards, did not appease Joe in the least. Nope. When he realized he still would not get his bath tonight, he perpetrated a sizable meltdown in protest. He wheedled. He argued. He cried. He wrote notes of apology. He wandered in and out of our room muttering curses until we were ready to tell him that although he couldn’t have a bath we wished he would go soak his head. Because we felt too generous already in the sizable reduction in his sentence, though, we held steadfast and refused to cave. He could live with two days’ punishment.

Joe’s meltdown continued for about 30 minutes. Finally I pulled out the Bunny Buddhism book and shared this doozy with him when he again wandered into our room in protest:

The wise bunny knows life is full of suffering and chooses not to create more.

He was not impressed with my bunny wisdom. Joe is the King of Drama. When he was younger and in trouble for a transgression, he would tell us that he wanted to beat himself as punishment. I started to wonder if he had been a member of Los Hermanos Penitentes in a former life and that was why he was advocating self-flagellation. It’s hard to know sometimes if his histrionics are the genuine result of his ADHD-enhanced lack of control or an elaborate ruse meant to elicit guilt. He is capable of working both ways.

I’m not sure why Joe insists on ratcheting his initial Level 3 DEFCON misery to DEFCON Level 1, but I keep hoping that he will learn what the wise bunnies know…that inventing additional suffering is ill-advised. So far that lesson has not kicked in, but I hold out hope. Hopefully he chooses to stop making unpleasant situations into unbearable ones. Hopefully he learns to channel his energy into reducing the drama in his life rather than creating more. If not, I guess there’s always a future on Days of Our Lives. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that. I’ve seen enough of Stefano and Marlena.