Jeff Foster, in one of his posts said “You can’t make others happy, but you can inspire others by living your own happiness more fully. (…) Sometimes you have to be more selfish to be truly selfless; so selfish that you devote your life to burning as brightly as possible, inspiring others rather than trying to fix them.”
I copy his words here because they are mine and he has said it so well. When I took off –just as my children were having their children- to live my own life I was consciously being selfish; I consciously took the decision to reach out for my own happiness rather than staying around and being a grandmother to their children. I did it out of love, love for me and love for them. Somewhere along the line I had learned that if I sacrificed myself for them, I would hand them the bill later on. My guiding thought was: ‘If I want my children to be happy, I have to show them the way; this is the greatest gift I can give them and the most precious inheritance.’ I truly believed that then and have continued to believe it till now. Life has yet to show me I was wrong.
Today my two children are together, in Mexico (my son has flown down from Los Angeles), battling for the inheritance their father left them, which would have given them a nice amount of money if things had gone differently. Things didn’t, and what ensued is much too complicated to explain. Suffice to say it has caused them a great amount of anger, frustration and –in my son’s case- a large amount of money in lawyer’s fees. I do not know what the outcome of their struggle will be; they don’t either. But I sat here this morning contemplating the possibility of sending a wish to the Universe for things to go well, and then I realized I couldn’t possibly know what would be the best for them, for my children, so I simply turned it over knowing the Universe will give them what is best for them… but only always. Reality is kinder than my thoughts about reality –as Byron Katie says- but only 100% of the time.
I don’t know why my two children are going through this at the midpoint in their lives (both are in their 50’s) but I do know that only good can come of it. I was 50 -well, 49 about to turn 50- when my life did a complete flip-flop that set me on the path I call “my second life”, so different from my first that the memories of that time seem to belong to a completely different person. In that first life, I searched for love everywhere wanting so desperately to be happy. Then that life died and, although I survived physically, everything I had believed I knew in those first 50 years was washed clean and I had to start learning all over again from scratch.
A few of the first things I learned were put very simply in Twelve Step meetings which became my new birthing family: “You can’t give anybody that which you cannot give yourself”; “God’s will is that you be you; if He had wanted you to be Mother Theresa of Calcutta, he would have made you Mother Theresa of Calcutta;” “you cannot control anything out there and when you try to your life becomes ungovernable.”
Recently, someone sent me a Ted Talk by Anita Moorjani where she explains her near-death experience (NDE). After listening to her, I bought her book on Kindle. Her story states over and over again in every way possible, that it was only one realization that made her come back to life and that cured her cancer: that she was here to love herself above all else. This sounds selfish and self-centered unless you put it the way Byron Katie does: “I am 100% responsible for myself”. That means I am responsible for taking care of myself, but also that I am responsible for loving myself: there is no one else that can do that; it is my job.
It took me a long time; I had no idea what it meant to love myself. Having spent my whole life thinking that I knew what love was and that I had felt it for others, I came to realize that what I had thought was love (physical attraction, passion, neediness, actually selfishness like in ‘be mine only’ ‘give me’ ‘love me’ ‘don’t leave me’, etc), all those confusing and sometimes painful emotions, had nothing to do with love. Eventually, I would understand that love is actually Being Present, Paying Attention and Responding: in other words, being Responsible.
My first lesson was learning to listen to me, something I (as a Leo) had always wanted everyone else to do. This was not an easy chore because –although I had demanded many things of others- I had never actually tried to listen to myself, so it took time and patience. I had to sit quietly, I had to ask myself and then wait. “Brianda, what do you want?” My first discovery was that I had no idea what I really wanted. It was like being with a small child who hasn’t a clue of what choices she has and therefore cannot answer the question. I had to be patient with myself and I had to try things out to see if they fit.
I would ask myself: Do I want to go for a walk now or would I feel happier reading a book? Then I would wait. I would check inside, first imagining walking and then imagining reading a book and waiting for my body to tell me which activity it actually would enjoy more in that moment. This was new. I had never really connected to my body before, much less known I could trust it to inform me of my needs, likes and dislikes. I had lived from the neck up, inhabiting a mind which became every day more obsessed, addicted and crazy. But my body –I would discover- knew exactly what it liked and didn’t like, what food it craved, what movies it wanted to see or not see, what people it wanted to be with.
For instance, one day the memory of how, as a young girl, I had loved coloring with crayons came to me and I felt my body respond with what seemed like excitement. My mind immediately said ‘but Brianda, you are a writer, an intellectual: what are you going to do with a coloring book and crayons at your age?’ But my body didn’t seem to give a damn about my mind’s opinion; it was already visualizing an enormous box of crayons, one with 48 different colors (there had only been boxes with 6 and later 12 colors when I was a girl), so I got myself up, went to the store and bought myself a big box of crayons and several coloring books.
And so it went. If someone invited me to their house or a party, was I really interested in going? I had to learn how to say ‘no’. Did I want to see that movie, go to that restaurant or eat that food? Was I more interested in sitting around the table with my family on Sundays or going to an AA meeting (one Sunday, when I excused myself to go to the meeting, my son said “Mom, you’re getting awfully selfish,” to which I responded: “Yes, isn’t that wonderful!”)?
And listening to myself was only the beginning. Liking myself came second, and learning that it was all right if not everyone liked me as long as I liked myself. I came to see that my need to be liked by others was actually the long road to trying to like myself (the hidden belief being that if everyone liked me I would finally be able to feel I was ok). I decided to take the short cut and start with me. I dragged age-old photos of myself from the drawer where they were hidden (I hadn’t included them in the family albums because I didn’t like the way I looked) and pasted them all around my dressing room. Under each photo I stuck a piece of paper where I had written a quality that I could admire in myself (honesty, loyalty, generosity, etc.) and every morning while I was dressing I would look at the pictures and allow my body to feel acceptance and even love. It wasn’t long before I realized how beautiful I had actually been when I was younger, and started to feel sorry that I hadn’t known and appreciated it at the time. From there it was easy to see that when I reached 80 I would look back on my 50-year-old self as gorgeous and feel sorry for having missed it. I decided then and there not to miss another moment of my own beauty, notwithstanding extra pounds, wrinkles or bad-hair days. I was helped in this task by a very special teacher: my little dog. Supposing I loved, took care of and caressed my own body just the way I do hers? I asked myself: Am I going to stop loving her if she gets old, or goes blind, grows fat or loses her hair? If not, then why would I not treat my own body with the same love and care for as long as it lasts? Today, I mentally get on my knees to this precious body that survived my almost killing it with cigarettes, alcohol and misery, and has now carried me well into my 70’s as healthy and sturdy as ever.
With what are known as “negative” emotions, it was the same. Whenever I felt embarrassed or inadequate, sad or frustrated, lonely or bored instead of looking to others or the circumstances to find a culprit, I would stop and go inside. What I discovered was that the feeling had nothing to do with others or the situation and everything to do with my own judgment of myself and my circumstances. So I would ask myself what I was doing or believing that was causing the discomfort. I often discovered that what was making me uncomfortable was that I wanted something from somebody else (or from life itself) and that was making me unhappy with what I had (or was) at the moment. If I was being critical or judgmental of someone else or of my own life, that criticism or judgment made me dislike myself or my circumstances.
Little by little I began to realize that nothing I did or felt had anything to do with anyone or anything else: it was all me. Of course, some years later when I discovered The Work of Byron Katie and began to use the questions to undo my painful beliefs, it all became clear and much easier, and I at long last experienced real freedom and real joy as a way of being in the world.
So back to the beginning: Today my children are facing their own midlife battles, one of them being the fight to claim their father’s inheritance. I have no idea of what the outcome will be or what effect it will have on their futures. I only know I trust the Universe and am convinced that there are no mistakes… ever. And I know that if there were any way I could give them that trust, I gladly would, but it is something that each of us has to learn for ourselves by walking the walk. And for me, this learning is what life is about.