I read recently that the universe is Not, actually, a giant vending machine, wherein you can deposit a certain amount of positive karma, and expect to have a 16-ounce bag of Goodness fall in your lap as a result. Cha-ching! On a reasonable and intellectual level, of course this makes sense. It’s part of how I teach my children that the world is not a system of fairness, like some gigantic abacus in the sky, keeping precise score and sliding beads along a wire to even it all out among us. Nor is the world Good or Bad, necessarily. It is a great many things, and the trick for us all is to find a way to hold in our arms all that it is – fortunate, cruel, beautiful, ugly, magical, senseless – and still leave a space for wonderment, for watchfulness. Really, just a space to draw a breath.
Vonnegut, that old sparkley-eyed humorist who liked to pretend to be a curmudgeon said, “People so smart you can’t believe it, and people so dumb you can’t believe it. People so nice you can’t believe it, and people so mean you can’t believe it.”
So, how do we wrap our arms around all that the world is, that people are, that we ourselves are and still have the heart to notice a late fall butterfly, or the eyes of the checkout woman who robotically wishes us to have a nice day – one beat before we robotically wish her the same.
Clearing ourselves of our precious point of view helps, as therapist and writer Paula D’Arcy advocates. So long as we are at the center of a movie that’s constantly playing, without much plot, nor a real director nor certainly the audience we think we have, and starring of course, moi, then taking a grander, more expansive view of life feels incredibly out of focus and difficult. Clear yourself of your precious point of view. Pull the lens way back, survey the horizon, observe your pulse in your big toe, the wind across your forehead.
Or — you can also escape yourself by focusing on someone else. Ah, but here is where I start to fall back into the vending machine belief. It makes me feel better, relieved of my own narcissistic hamster wheel, to offer my ear to a friend, to do a kindness, however small or large, for someone else. In my frustration this weekend, feeling as though I couldn’t get anything done and a certain antsy pull of loneliness, I offered a yoga class to a group of friends on my back porch. I’ve been doing this sort of thing a lot lately, and it’s borne as much of despair as true kindheartedness and altruism. I am not literally expecting something back, some karmic bag of candy for my efforts, but I do have to admit that I’m trying to spend my way out of my funk.
I can’t figure out how to manage my small children’s needs while getting to a better place in my career, or feeling as though I have no sense of purpose and meaning, or manage difficult emotions around whether to move away from a hometown that I never wanted to be in, which simultaneously makes me feel suffocated as well as grateful for its ease and connections, or how to deal with the fact that we are always bouncing checks at the end of every month, or that my husband and I rarely laugh and hang out anymore. Taken together, and at the underwater speed I move at these days, this all feels like wet wool pressing down on me. It feels like despair.
Recently, I hit a particular low. It took me a few days to finally do what my friend N calls “punching the inner critic in the balls,” and galvanize myself off the couch. I couldn’t quite get off the couch for myself, but I could for other people. So I made phone calls, sent books and cards in the mail, slipped poems through mail slots. It might look like thoughtful random acts of kindness, but to me, it felt frantic, desperate, grasping – like walking in to the nearest C-store, wild-eyed to buy 10 lottery tickets with your last ten dollars.
Maybe something good will happen to me if I do this.
I know that’s not how the world works, but is this unhealthy or healthy? Self care or self sacrificial? Selfish or kind? Like so much of life, it’s all of these things. It’s all true. It’s complexity — as I am, as you are and as we all are. Vonnegut could have just as easily substituted himself for other people, saying, “I am so smart you can’t believe it, and I am so dumb you can’t believe it. I am so nice you can’t believe it, and I am so mean you can’t believe it.” If in that moment, a bit of frenetic clawing is what got me back to the surface, is that so calculating and miserly?
I think I’ll go to my grave believing, on some level, that there really is an abacus in the sky. I spend so much time wanting to get an analysis on how I’m feeling and doing– is this the right approach, was that decision “good”, was that the helpful, caring thing to say in that particular moment. And to be fair to myself, I think this trait makes me a very thoughtful and sensitive person. But the trouble is that it also so easily negates my own self. I forget to notice how I actually AM. And I think that causes the despair as much as the Big external factors of children, career, town, marriage.
Clear yourself of your precious point of view. Holding multiple, seemingly conflicting truths compassionately in one little tight fisted grip is the way forward. And all the better if the grip can loosen. This is the way to walk away from the fictional vending machine (which didn’t have anything in it I wanted anyway). If all these things are true – hope, despair, self sacrifice, self care, suffocation, expansion – then my god. My god. Its like adding your favorite song to the cityscape or mountain scene you are viewing – and instantly chaos and distance is replaced with poignancy and tenderness. Just holding it all at once catches me up short, forces me to draw a breath, takes me out of the movie starring me for just a second. And in that second – in that wonderment of these disparate, baffling true things – I feel the pulse of blood throbbing in my left big toe; I feel the whisper of wind across my forehead.