A Full Life

One of my absolute favorite poems by one of my absolute favorite poets, Sharon Olds, has a section that goes a little something like this:

“I could see her in a temple, tying someone up,
or being tied up, or being made nothing,
or making someone nothing,
I saw she was full of cruelty
and full of kindness, brimming with it-
I had known but not known this, that she was human,
she had it all inside of her, all of it.
She saw me seeing that, she liked that I saw it.
A full life – I saw her living it”

The first time I read this, I remember gasping with recognition. I am that woman. We all are. 

Sometimes in recovery, or even just in regular old normal people life, we get on a quest to get better. To improve. To get fixed. Many of us are perfectionists or are taught at a young age that in order to be okay we have to do things right and be good. Many of us are trying to run from “bad” feelings and negative emotions because we learned that they were something of which to be ashamed. Many of us feel that as we grow spiritually we are not supposed to still have anger and resentment and fear and judgement. Many of us think we are supposed to become so very good that we no longer hurt people or say unkind things or feel superior.

But we do. We are human. We are full of cruelty and full of kindness. We have it all inside of us.

One of my favorite mindful meditation teachers, Jack Kornfield, speaks about this frequently, how meditation is not supposed to become some grim duty that we use as a tool for self-improvement, but is a joyful and messy practice we choose to show up to in order to accept ourselves, exactly as we are. To start seeing how our problems arise in the mind, because, as he says, “the mind has no pride and will think anything.” To see that all minds think this way. There are no human minds that are completely free of passing thoughts that may include hatred and anger and fear and all those less enticing emotions. They are in us, if we are fully human. They move through us, if we allow ourselves to be fully human. The recovery we hope to find, is practicing not acting on these thoughts and causing harm. But even that we sometimes do. Fall seven times. Get up eight.

Many of us who grew up in frightening or dysfunctional households feel a deep need to be good in order to be loved. We were taught that our negative emotions were wrong and people would only like us if we were pleasing and easy and nice. We were ashamed of our emotions, and so we blocked them off and chose to not feel them.

When we finally enter into recovery and begin to let those emotions surface, they feel like hell. We think they’ll kill us. But they don’t, and we learn ways of dealing with them without completely self-destructing.

Then what? I know for me that I can sometimes think I am supposed to be so very good and pure and whole in the eyes of others, because after all I am in recovery, that I can still feel like there is something wrong with me that needs to be fixed because of the darker emotions I experience. I can compare myself to others who appear to not have them. I can think that everyone is mad at me and judging me for my less than perfect personality.

But I’m not here to be a Stepford Wife or a Pollyanna. I am here to be an authentic and full human who embraces and accepts all feelings and allows them to be what they are and where they are at any moment. If I can do that for myself, I can do that for others. The more I accept myself completely, every single nook and cranny, even the darkest and ugliest spaces, I can accept the humanness of others and always come to a place of forgiveness.

Every now and then I remember certain things my dad did that scared me or hurt me. If I think about them for too long, I can drift into self-pity and resentment. I can start to blame this grown man for treating his child in such a way.

Then I remember, he was a child once, too. He had parents who raised him in a similar fashion. He grew up with the same fear and anxiety and denial of emotion. He did the best he could to raise me with the tools he had (or didn’t have.) He cannot hurt me anymore. And I love him. I bow to him and all of his deep wounds that haven’t healed yet. I pray for him to be free from his suffering. I don’t want to be angry at him. The stories in my head of the past are no longer real or all that powerful. I have grieved and raged and forgiven.

This sort of process and growth allows me to live a full life. I am not bogged down by shame and fear around the madness, and it is madness, that lurks in my mind. It is still sometimes hard for me to accept that I am imperfect and human and therefore full of character flaws (“defects” as they are called in 12 step programs, but I’m not a big fan of that word) because I am afraid of how I am seen in the world, and I can still think people are out to get me and hate me and judge me if I do something wrong. This is a very old belief that I am continuously praying to be free from.

But I am coming to trust that all of that is held in a sacred space. All of everything is ok. My cruelty and kindness, my potential to hurt another or myself, my small sense and large sense of self, my capacity for joy and my capacity for suffering – all of that is held in a space so much larger than I could even imagine, and there is nothing I can do to not be loved. 

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