Perhaps you have been the unfortunate victim of the conversation-starter “Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news.” And then there is that preposterous question that so inevitably follows “Which do you want first?” As if it has ever mattered when both are being tossed onto you like a box of chocolates tied tightly to a grenade. When the grenade goes off, the box of chocolates seems rather less a delight.
The good-news-bad-news question is also a power-play. The speaker is announcing their power to manipulate your emotions and possibly your happiness for a day or a season – a powerful position.
What I have come to learn in my third and final phase of life is that Rilke’s call to the young poet to “love the questions” was good advice. And not just for young poets; but for all of us as well.
In these days of pandemic and isolation – of disease and infection – of health, symptoms, and infections-asymptomaticisism, we really do need to change how we think, and not just what we do. We here, in America, began to think we were powerful simply because of our governmental, financial and food security. However, myths that all will be well for the inhabitants of a country “under God” are beginning to collapse in favor of a willingness to “just keep going” as so many African-American Spirituals encourage.
Giving up control of things by hosting hard ego-shelled thoughts like “I should have this.” And “This is not fair.” And “This should not happen to me.” reflect very low emotional intelligence and will only cause us more suffering. When we take ourselves too seriously, we lock the prison door of our likes and our dislikes, finding ourselves inside our own gilded-cage of resentment-steel.
Much better is a loosening of our grip on “what ought to be” and exchanging that rigidity for an acceptance of “what is” with its incumbent invitation to curiosity.
We all, each one of us in adult-hood, have within us a family of our four selves. We have within our psyche four versions of ourselves – each vying for supremacy. Not being good at self-care because my parents never taught it, I am, as are so many, having to parent myself and impose a call to rest and gentleness on myself like a doctor’s prescription. I am having to coach my inner toddler that I am ok. I am having to parent my inner 3rd grader that the world is safe to explore. I am having to parent my inner teenager that anger and rage need to be set aside. And I am needing my inner adult to host these conversations well – especially when I feel fatigue and grief which, I might add, are very difficult to unravel.
So what does one do to let go of what we think “should be” and become comfortable with the inevitability of uncertainty? How do we live in this “new way?”
Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote the prescription for our current social malady. “Make your ego porous. Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything.” These four suggestions for combating our ego in this pandemic-reality are powerful rules for life if one wants a happy one.
Openness: This means that we live each moment welcoming whatever life brings without battling it. Yes, and I even mean the hard bits. Greeting everything as a new teacher and with curiosity is a powerful way to be open to new realities.
Patience: Time and patience, as Tolstoy once wrote, are the two great warriors of life. Things will pass – the good and the bad. Greeting new life-challenges with rubber stamps in each hand inked for “good” and “bad” will only cause deep suffering. It is better to wait, greet everything as “what is real now” without labeling and fighting it. We must love that which comes – all of it. Since we do not know what loveliness will unfurl from even what seems the worst things.
Receptivity: Rumi once wrote that “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.” Being receptive of everything that comes along and greeting it with equanimity, is a powerful choice for peace and a tremendous road to gratitude and its resulting happiness.
Solitude: Most of us are unhappy with solitude, but that is because we have confused solitude with loneliness. They are not the same. Loneliness is an illness in which being with myself is not enjoyable. The remedy is to become a kinder person to yourself such that the thoughts with which you sit are kind. Solitude, on the other hand, is simply the act of self-befriending which may, in the end, be what we are here to learn.
Living comfortably with this new post-pandemic reality is not a new thing. It is simply a real thing. The Disney-world life we were living in which insurance and money, status and title and winning the gene-pool lottery kept us safe, is crumbling. Instead, we are all being asked to increase our emotional intelligence. We are being asked not to act in a different way, but rather to think in a different way.
Your savings account is not everything. Your health is not everything. Your possessions and house are not everything. Your resume and your offspring are not everything. Your creeds and your rituals are not everything. Indeed, nothing outside of you is everything. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything and will get you through this. But beware, for they are hard, internal work. Stop being right, and choose instead to be curious and kind.
As to the question with which we began “There is good news and bad news; which do you want first?” There is only good news. It is the stunning beauty all around us accessed only by our hard work to uncover our own inner beauty. If we look for our own beauty and cultivate our own self-kindness then, I am sure, we will be able to see the beauty in everything and live out the kindness that is life’s only worthy goal. And then the question “Which do you want first?” is quite moot indeed.
Charles LaFond is an author, potter, poet, fundraiser, public speaker and novelist who lives with his Queensland Red Heeler, Sugar, on the cliffs of an island in the Salish Seas off the coast of America.