Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

“Sometimes we don’t have to pursue happiness, sometimes we just need to pause and let it catch up with us.”

–Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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Meeting Carol

One morning, when I stopped by the independent living facility where my mother-in-law resides, Carol met me at the door, her eyes sparkling.

After giving me a hug and leading me inside, she declared, “This is a banner day for me.”

“Is that right?” I asked as I mentally scrolled through the possibilities of why today was more special than yesterday.

“Well,” she said, taking a seat. “Last night I graduated from high school!”

high-school-graduation

I could have searched my brain all day and not come up with that one. “Okay,” I said carefully. “Congratulation?”

“Thank you!” She was almost giddy with excitement. “I feel such relief. You know, today is the first day in thirteen years that I don’t have to get up and go to school. It is so freeing!”

“I bet,” I answered brightly, her enthusiasm infectious.

She paused and looked at me carefully, taking in the crow’s feet around my eyes and the subtle yet stubborn gray highlights in my hair. “Well, I guess you would know what it feels like since you have obviously been out of school for a loooooong time.” She spoke with just the right mixture of adolescent disdain and pity.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Not that Alzheimer’s is a laughing matter. It is a heartbreaking disease, a devastating disease on many levels, but this was a good day. This was a day, in Carol’s mind at least, to celebrate. She was young again, even her body language was more girlish, and we had a nice visit, riding the happiness of where she was in space and time. And then I left, knowing full well that tomorrow when I stopped by, things would be completely different.

alzheimers_disease_

But that is okay, because this is Carol’s gift to me. One that I unwrap before each visit as I sit in my car and remind myself to meet Carol where she is. Regardless of whether it is the present moment or Easter (Easter comes up often on the calendar year for Carol and me) or one of those difficult days when she is restless and agitated and just wants to go “home.”

It took me several months and a lot of research about Alzheimer’s to get to this place with Carol—to stop trying to correct her confusion, and to learn to contain my own anguish about the deterioration of her mental processes. When I started practicing accepting Carol as is, life became much easier for us both. By removing the resistance, she and I can find a peace of sorts with each other and with her disease—even on the really hard days.

holding hands

It took a lot longer for me to realize that what Carol was teaching me could also be applied to my daily life. As much as we try to control our day-to-day existence, life can be quite a labyrinth at times. Motivational speaker Wayne Dyer said, “Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.” Although it is human nature to resist the unexpected (or at least it is MY human nature to wholeheartedly resist the unexpected), there is no peace to be found in pushing back. As the saying goes, “What you resist, persists.”

So these days, under Carol’s tutelage, I am trying to learn to find peace and safety in what is. To accept the unexpected and the unplanned. To celebrate the roller coaster of uncertainty.  Some days my attempt to meet life as it is goes better than others. When I find myself flailing, I know that it has been too long since I visited my mother-in-law. So I run by the bakery and pick up a couple of glazed old-fashioned donuts and point my car to the east side of town. I know that when Carol opens the door, she will remind me of exactly where we need to be.

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William James Quote

“The greatest weapon we have against stress is to choose one thought over another.”

–William James, American psychologist

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The Messiness of Life

Each year I look forward to receiving a holiday letter from my friend Kris. In amongst the family news, there is always a bit of wisdom and insight. This year, she wrote of new adventures, travels with friends, and visits from special family members. She expressed that they were grateful to have so much to celebrate. But then she wrote, “Yet, the year was also sprinkled with trials. We’re sure some of you can relate. There were many times we were challenged beyond our comfort level, and brought to our knees in prayer.”

comfort zone

I thought this was well put, especially as I have been struggling for the last couple of months with how to write about why I haven’t posted an essay in over a year. I don’t think Kris would mind if I borrow her phrasing and put it as simply as this: For the first five months of 2014, my family and I were challenged beyond our comfort level, and as a result, I had a lot of trouble staying on my feet. Everyone has those times, do they not? Times when everything starts shifting so fast that you can’t help but be rocked by uncertainty and fear.

It was kind of awful, but at the same time, it wasn’t. Throughout each and every challenge, there was always someone there to steady me with their help, kindness, and love. Sometimes this aid came from those I love best, but just as often, it was offered from a casual acquaintance or a complete stranger. For every challenge, there were a multitude of blessings to soothe the rawness of my heart, and I went to bed each night a little shaken but also filled with gratitude. As my friend Kris wrote in her letter, it is about finding “joy in the pain.”

joy in the painFortunately, by summer, the earth stopped shaking under our feet and life resumed—it was different than before but steady nonetheless. Oddly enough, it was in the months after the crises that I struggled the most. I didn’t trust my new balance, and the anticipation that I could be knocked off my feet again at any moment kept me in a constant state of anxiety and fearfulness.

Rick Hansen, in his excellent book “Hardwired for Happiness”, writes that not only do negative experiences overpower positive ones, but painful or fear-inducing episodes actually change our biological chemistry and, as a result, rewire our brain. He explains that “feeling stressed, worried, irritated, or hurt today makes you more vulnerable to feeling stressed, etc., tomorrow, which makes you really vulnerable the day after that. Negativity leads to more negativity in a very vicious circle.”

negative brain

That was exactly it. All last summer and fall, my poor, vulnerable brain got stuck in a negative loop. The anxious wariness felt deceptively safe, but in reality sucked all the light and energy from my life—much more so than the original crises had. By November, I was drained. Around Thanksgiving, I decided that no matter how fearful it made me, I was ready to take a leap of faith and trust in life again. But how? By chance, that was the week I received Kris’s letter. It was this phrase that I grasped onto like a lifeline: “We stand amidst the messiness of life and we are thankful.”

It was the perfect answer because according to Hansen, the way to retrain our brain is to shift our focus from the negative to the positive. He calls it “taking in the good,” and suggests that we do it several times a day to teach our brain to focus on the beauty, grace, and blessings that are always there to steady us.

Gratitude

In other words, I had to rewire my brain to see with my heart. I had to look past the messy stuff that makes me feel afraid and uncomfortable—the stuff I can’t control—and focus on the abundant goodness that is always there. It is an ongoing process as our brains are protectively attracted to the negative, but when I am vigilant, I can find the courage to believe that each challenge is wrapped within a blessing. When I trust in the good, I can see the grace–such as a holiday letter from an old friend–that keeps me aloft as I fly through this scary, unpredictable, and beautiful life of mine.

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W.S. Merwin Quote

“From what we cannot hold the stars are made.”

–W.S. Merwin from the poem “Youth”

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Anna Quindlen Quote

“When I’m falling, my girlfriends are my soft landing.”

–Anna Quindlen, writer

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Patti LaBelle Quote

“Don’t block the blessings.”

–Patti LaBelle

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