Oliver Sacks says of his life: “My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return.” I would say this is a “good life” and I am very jealous. My predominant feeling is one of struggle just to get through the day, and trying to get that I’m OK just as I am.
At the end of yesterday’s journal entry I wrote: ‘What does it mean to “have a life”? What does it mean to “live well”?’ One of Father Greg’s homeboys said “I want a life,” meaning he wanted something different from continually risking his life as a member of a gang. I have felt that way too: that this life I live is “not a life” because it has been hurt too badly to live.
After writing those questions I pondered for a long time. I had no answers and puzzled over them the rest of the day. This morning it occurred to me that “having a life” meant having a life based on choices, not on being pushed around by random forces. But allowing yourself to be pushed around is also a choice. So the difference is in what you choose, and the only choice really is whether to respond or to react. So “having a life” means making the best choice you can in every situation, even if it is only to refuse to act, or to define the situation differently. I always thought that “having a life” meant being “alive to my fingertips” and able to enjoy all the little things, and having a big loving heart, and being resilient in the face of difficulties and disasters. I judge myself for not being that way but now I see that being “alive” is a function of temperament and early experiences. My early experiences have wounded me badly, and shut me down from what I might have been — a person who enjoys every little thing and is resilient in the face of disaster. Instead I have pursued truth relentlessly, trying to get to the truth of my life, and why I seemed to live it so badly. Whenever truth came to me I recognized it, and changed my behavior as a result. An example: when a friend asked about my mother’s “drinking problem” the lights went on. “That’s what it is!” I said of something I had recognized but had no name for. I was never in denial, I was only ignorant. Erica says I am “fully engaged and present.” Surely that is the same as being alive to my finger tips. I just always imagined that being alive that way would be happiness, but you can also be alive to pain if that is what is there. I think of Lea saying “You don’t just dance with your arms and legs, you dance with your soul.” And the woman at Kripalu who said my dancing had “changed her life.”
O but! I realize as I read this over that of course I have been in denial. I have a very hard time when people say good things about me. I can’t really take them in. I don’t reject them completely any more, I put them on a psychic page labeled “Evidence to disprove the hypothesis that Jenny is worthless.” I repeat them to myself hoping to change what I believe I am.
What does it mean to “live well”? I used to think it meant that you were happy and successful, “success” not just meaning a career, but also in any activity that means something to you. Again I see that happiness and success depend on initial gifts and an environment that supports and encourages them. Thinking about it now, my first thought is that “living well” means living with integrity. Then I think “Show up, pay attention, tell the truth,” and how I have done well with those, and maybe that’s what I mean by living with integrity. Not in denial, but with awareness. The fourth rule — “Don’t be attached to results” — is very hard for me. Would that be part of living well? I think that showing up, paying attention, and telling the truth are things that you can do consciously, can practice and work on. “Not being attached to results” can’t really be done directly or on will power. I suppose one could acknowledge it, every time one is attached, instead of being in denial, and at least make an effort to let go. “Not being attached” has come to me as a grace, a free gift. The first time I can remember was the day the Christmas Tree fell down, and I didn’t get upset at all. It really struck me, because it was so different from how I usually was. This morning I got upset when I found that the dog had peed on the floor. I’ve been through long periods of time when I’ve just shrugged my shoulders and cleaned up without being upset at all. I think also the times when I feel OK just as I am, are times when results are unimportant. Results are about proving something, that I am OK, that I do deserve to live.