My very dear friend Ginger is graciously running my series on The 5 Givens Of Life on her blog, Just One of the Boys. She runs a special segment called In Her Shoes where she shares the stories of others. I have loved her writing and the writings of those she shares. I hope you have a chance to check it out and that her page is as refreshing and encouraging to you as it is to me.
Being an avid book reader means I have made friends with a million fictitious characters and learned life-changing lessons from authors centuries dead. I have my own little favorite-book list that I can’t help but continue to try to cram down the throats of my friends.
Reading changes you.
It instructs you.
It teaches you.
Often, I have found my back against a wall, cried out for help, and been answered in a book.
One such book is called “The Five Things We Cannot Change”. It’s written by an author who is specifically Buddhist, but since I am specifically not, I wanted to tell the principles in his book, but with a bit of deviation. Instead of focusing on the underlying current of that religion, I want to tell stories of how God has met me in those 5 places.
I hope that you consider reading this book yourself. With eyes open to finding truth where you might otherwise not expect it, and with a mind, sharp to keep what is good and discard what is not.
THE FIVE GIVENS OF LIFE:
Part 1 of 5. EVERYTHING CHANGES AND ENDS
I was nineteen when I first met him. He was seventeen. Almost eighteen.
When I first saw him rollerblading around the parking lot, I could have never known the things that were laid out in front of us. He was my first everything. My first kiss, my first love, my first death. I lived by his side for the next thirteen years before this first given of life proved itself true: everything eventually changes and ends.
We both grew up in the same cult and were working on staff at a branch in Indianapolis. The irony of being sent there to learn how to help troubled youth was great, for I knew nothing about life myself. But such was the steady pattern of this cult. Always the blind leading the blind.
I was sent there as punishment for my bad attitude at home. But that’s a whole story in itself.
I spent my days attached to 6 other girls near my age ranging in background and history from cowgirl to Mennonite to mountain girl. Then there was me. We were all as different as different could be. Still, we all found our perfect match within the group.
Sadly, one of the methods of mayhem within this cult was to not allow much depth in forming friendships, so I often found myself banned from the people that I would finally connect with.
We joined this cult when I was 10 or 11. To tell you the truth, much of my childhood is foggy, with little bursts of exceptional clarity happening around traumatic events. Therapists have told me that our minds serve to protect our emotions, often concealing events that we cannot bear, and only releasing them when we have become strong enough to face them. This has been my steady theme since setting out on the adventure to climb my own Mt Everest about seven years ago. To find the dysfunctions within me, right them, and then sit back and wait for the realizations and memories to become clear so that I can handle them. Some of the realities have been realizations of damage, but surprisingly, some of them have been the new awareness that I was indeed loved.
During those years, what I remember of them now anyway, I felt unwanted.
Taken for granted.
Being sent to Indianapolis drove the final nail in that coffin.
Kicked out from my family.
It’s a pill that just never goes down well.
This boy rollerblading around the parking lot was going to be the first in my life to call me his “favorite”. In a way, I see how God used him to show me my value. But it takes some fortitude to even find that now because I know how it ended, ya know. It’s hard to be true to those original moments when you know the whole thing eventually goes down in flames. It’s like watching the Titanic movie. You stop appreciating the romantic scenes when you know the boy freezes to death hanging onto the side of a door floating in the ocean.
We eventually left that place. Actually, we were kicked out. I went home and wasn’t welcome, so I began moving from place to place. This lasted 18 months. All the while, both of us were not allowed to be in touch with the other in any way. It was so painful. Adults have no ability to remember the severity of first love. Just like pain not having memory, we grow older and get used to disappointment and hurt and heartache and forget altogether what it is like to be so young and so fragile and so breakable.
There I was, 20 years old, living out in the real world, trying desperately to figure out the things I did not learn for the previous ten years while tucked away from society living in a cult. My sister in law took me shopping for my first pair of jeans and tennis shoes. This was before the invention of low-rise jeans. I can still remember those jeans like yesterday. And the high top Nikes. I had no idea how to dress. I probably still don’t actually, but I can pull off some mean yoga pants now.
Eventually I knew I needed to find him. I needed to know. The last time I spoke to him, he told me he’d find me. He promised. And I hung onto that promise for dear life.
I wrote a letter and mailed it to the address given to me by directory assistance. I had no idea who his parents were and what their names might be. I just knew that he lived in Marietta, Georgia. Guided by the ever so thin stands of fate, that letter made it to the right house and into the right hands.
Seven days later on the dot, I was watching Dawson’s Creek alone in the living room at my brother’s house when the phone rang. The sight of the caller ID sent my heart into my toes. Not seeing or speaking to someone that you desperately love for a year and a half brings some serious intensity to a reunion of any kind. Like getting a loved one back from the dead, there is an instant of pause inside of you that stops and freezes time… so you’ll never forget it… and because you don’t have any idea what to do.
A week later, we met up in Chattanooga, Tennessee at the Choo-Choo Hotel. As clear as if it were yesterday, I can see him walking across that courtyard in his yellow checked Abercrombie shirt. The smell of Eddie Bauer Adventurer floats around in the back of my mind. The talks, the hugs, the kisses, the tears, the surreal moments of that first reunion. I will never forget them.
Though I have long since said my good-byes to that boy who stole a piece of me for eternity, those moments of our meeting and falling in love and then losing each other and eventually finding each other again are forever sealed away inside of me. Nothing can shake them from me. I cannot forget them even though I have tried. The severity of the agony that I felt when I lost him thirteen years later was equal to the severity of my love for him there in that Chattanooga hotel courtyard. When I let the memory rise up inside of me even now, parts of my chest feel like they rip in half anew, and I simply am unable to keep the tears from falling.
Only eighteen years have come and gone since I lived those moments that are seared within my most sacred memories. Yet they seem like several life times ago.
All my dreams realized themselves and then slowly disintegrated.
And finally, with an epic crash, they shattered and died and are no more.
I can’t be sure when it started, but I live with a very profound awareness of the transiency of life. Every time I reach out to love something or I find myself lost in a moment of enjoyment, I can count on the fact that the next heartbeat will bring with it the steady awareness that all things are meant to change and end.
Yet still, here we are, right?
There is still a yard to landscape and a body to keep fit and a house to decorate. There are still children who have lives to live and memories to make.
I can’t just check out because eventually it will all change and end.
I think we humans go to pretty great lengths to forget our mortality. To invest ourselves so deeply in the here and now that we forget the steady pounding of time and what she brings with her.
You only live once, ya know.
I’ve got news for you. YOLO is a lie!! The concept to “eat, drink, and be merry for tonight we die” loses its sparkle at a funeral. The feverish lusts of a “feel good” life are met with sadness and discomfort when the givens of life encroach on her happy party.
First, we don’t only live once.
Second, even if it were true that life is here today/gone tomorrow, drinking up pleasure and running from the plain and sometimes mundane truths of life – the givens of life – is only rushing faster and faster to a really noisy death.
All things are meant to change and pass away.
The athletic achievements of our middle age.
Our pursuits and dreams.
Everything we hold dear.
Sharp minds dull and agile bodies succumb to old age.
Trophies gather dust and medals tarnish.
Last month, I said good-bye to my ninety eight year old grandfather. And though his passing brought with it – for me anyway – a very certain peace in the fact that he is no longer suffering and has finally made it Home to be with the One he called Savior, there were a few existential realities that I could not ignore.
In his younger years, he was a bowler and a horseshoe pitcher. He had a whole room dedicated to his trophies. I remember that room like the back of my own hand. I remember the pride I felt in him. My grandpa was an amazing man and here was the room to prove it. Since long before I was born, he’d begun receiving awards. Each one, proof of yet another victory.
Four summers ago, my family was out in the same area in South Dakota as his beloved farm. Because my new husband and his daughters had never seen this beautiful part of my childhood, it was important to me that they at least have the knowledge of those sacred rooms and that yard filled with the imaginations of my early years.
We had to let ourselves in through a kitchen window because it had all been boarded up. If ever I have faced the stark reality that all things change and come to an end, it was walking into that farmhouse. The air stunk with the deadness of all the mice and lizards in the house. Tiny intricate skeletons lay on the stairs that I used to slide down with legs tucked into a pillowcase. The kitchen that was once Grand Central Station and spit out such wonderful things as homemade caramel rolls and apple pies was picked clean and the carcasses of ten thousand flies lay on the bright red counter tops.
The propane tank that served as my imaginary horse was so overgrown in weeds, that it was not visible anymore. The chicken coop – with its flattish roof – was in disrepair. I stood there, vividly remembering having danced up there with my cousins when I was little. We would link arms and sing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” as we skipped from side to side.
The three-wheeler that claimed my 13-year-old tibia sat parked in the garage with three flat tires. The Lincoln Towncar that was my Gramps’ pride and joy was there too. Old, forgotten, and probably dead. I pushed the dust on the window aside and saw the familiar tan leather seats with their embroidered Lincoln logo. I remember when he got this car. I remember thinking it felt like a boat when you sat in the back while speeding down gravel roads – floating up and down on those fancy schmany shock absorbers. I remember that this car saved his life once when he was in an accident when he was younger.
Around every corner, there was another memory. A memory that still seemed so close that, if I just closed my eyes, I could surely still smell the smells of the farm and his woodshop and taste the bitterness of the stolen drinks of his coffee and hear the sounds of my cousins’ voices.
But now, those times are gone.
They are over.
They have changed and ended and thoroughly passed.
Everything about the house was falling apart.
It was empty.
Mold and mildew everywhere.
The smell was so bad that I had to cover my nose.
On my way past the garage, I walked through his trophy room. I ran my fingers across decades of proof that he was an amazing man.
How can it be?
All that work.
All that effort.
All that dedication to perfecting his technique.
Here it is.
What’s left of it anyway.
It came and it passed and now it matters so little that it seems like it never needed to happen in the first place.
How does one find peace in the givens of life?
How does one find joy in the small things and live thoroughly present to life while mingling the acceptance that we were designed to let go? Even our mere ability to grieve and mourn show us that we were put together in a way where we were meant to face loss and the pains associated.
Does impermanence cancel our chance for happiness?
The givens of life are the things over which we have no control. Which are, probably most things. We live and eventually see that reality does not bow to our commands. We are forced to go along with things that we would otherwise not allow. When we want so much to hold on, we must let go. And when we want so much to let go, we are forced to hang on.
Out of this realization sprang the prayer composed by Reinhold Niebuhr that is the cornerstone of the recovery movement. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
But what are the things that we cannot change? What are the things that we must open our hearts and hands up to in order to find any sort of peace in our impermanent life?
1. Everything changes and ends.
2. Things do not always go according to plan.
3. Life is not always fair.
4. Pain is part of life.
5. People are not loving and loyal all the time.
The word “given” has two meanings. It is first a condition that cannot be changed, but it is also something that has been granted to us. Embracing the givens of life is, as author David Richo says, “to say ‘yes’ with gusto to what is unsatisfactory”… knowing and acknowledging the fine lines spoken of in Niebuhr’s prayer.
There are things we cannot change. And these are the things we want most to be able to.
Death and heartache.
Sickness and disease.
Betrayals and pain.
Letting go of our plans.
Saying good bye too soon.
In the book, the author says, “Each of the five main givens of life confront our deeply held illusions. The fact that things change confronts the illusion of permanence. The fact that plans fall through confronts our illusion of control. Our illusion that things will be fair or that pain will not happen to us or that people will be always trustworthy are all called into question by the givens we face in the course of our life. Accepting these givens liberates us from ignorance and illusion.”
All of these are the things that we as a culture and society have gone to work trying to control. We have pushed our mortality and its reality as far from our every day minds as we can get it. So much to the point that, when faced with a funeral and casket, we feel uncomfortable in its presence. As if death were not as much a part of life as the moments bursting with effervescence. As though letting go and saying good-bye were not woven into the very fabric of our beings.
Avoidance vs. Acceptance
Meister Eckhart was the one who said the now-famous quote, “Everything is meant to be let go of that the soul may stand in unhampered nothingness.”
As a culture, we spend our lives trying to work out our problems so that we maintain control and do not need to face the givens of life as immoveable realities. We try to negotiate with pain or stay in control of hard circumstances so that the loss sustained will be undone or at least lessened.
When we do this, we conflict with the absolutes in the world around us, and the last thing we find is peace.
Pain IS part of life.
Loss IS a part of life.
Change IS a part of life.
Everything changes and ends.
It just does.
Fighting against is brings unrest.
Accepting it – though it requires tremendous psychological and spiritual work – brings peace and stillness.
On the other side of acceptance lies the ability to move on. To leave the wound behind while carrying and maintaining the glory of the scars within us.
Our losses – when fully integrated for good in our lives because we abandon our false control and accept what really is rather than fighting for what we wish for – are transformed from gaping holes in our souls into wells of deeper and deeper capacity.
David Richo says, “To go through the experience of mourning a partner or family member, for instance, leads to letting go of whomever we lost. Grief readies us eventually to give up clinging to the past and to move toward closeness with new others who offer approximations of what we lost. We will not recover our mother, but we can experience motherly moments in nurturant others. Thus we feel no longer alone and isolated but reconciled to reality and reconnected to other humans. In fact, reconciliation is the ability to accept the approximation. This is the ‘yes’ of healthy compromise.”
If “having your ‘no’ intact” means that you know how to be assertive and protect yourself from abuse, “having your ‘yes’ intact” is the concept that holds hands with that truth. One is psychological work; the other spiritual.
Having your “yes” intact means that you choose to say a robust “YES” to the givens of life. It means accepting life on life’s terms. It means relinquishing the control you thought you had (that you never really did) and finding the calm peace that comes from that.
Be still and I know that I am God.
Are you hearing me now?
Am I speaking your language now?
As long as we are feuding with life’s givens, we not only stagnate our souls and live in ignorance, we disallow growth, healing, and the beautiful art of moving on. When we try to hang on when we need to release, we hurt ourselves. But when we back up and realize that there just are things about life that are hard to accept, and find the bravery to accept them anyway, we unlock doors inside ourselves that would otherwise bind us as captives for the rest of our mortal lives.
Everything changes and ends.
Our bodies age. Tight skin loosens, sharp vision dulls, strong muscles and bones become frail. Time is the master than no one can successfully run from. We all age. But the choice to age gracefully is within us as well. The choice to fight a losing battle in an effort to hang onto our youth just looks like a midlife crisis. And so instead, we must choose to accept what is.
Opening up our hands and souls to the aging process with grace looks like this: less glamour, more wisdom.
Our relationships change. Brothers and sisters who were once close fall away from one another. Divorce is a reality in our world. Friends sometimes turn away or are disloyal. The closeness we experience with our family and friends during certain periods of life ebb and flow. Sometimes close, sometimes distant. Should we raise our fists when a family member or friend is not as close or loyal as we would like, we are living in disharmony with the given in life that people are not always as loyal as we would like and that things do indeed change.
Living out a “yes” to that is painful. Opening the hand and accepting the new is hard. But stubbornly trying to hang onto what was is setting yourself at odds with life’s unchanging rules.
In a world where things change and end, an attitude of acceptance and trust makes sense.
Death is real. In fact, it’s not only real, it’s inevitable. Young and old alike face this passageway from one life to the next. We fear it because we do not know it. And what we do not know, we cannot control. We fear it because it means loss. It means change. It means an end has come.
When the casket is filled with 98 year old bones, we cry happy tears in celebration of a life well lived and the sad but light tears of our appropriately timed good-byes. However, when the casket bears the body of our beloved spouse or child, the tears that follow are much more bitter. When this given of life – that all things change and come to an end – follows a time line other than what we have in mind, the pain is very real and very personal.
And when the casket is proverbial and the death being grieved comes in the form of divorce or abandonment, the same noxious gasses fill our lungs and make us recoil in agony, struggling for fresh air and firm footing.
Time is both our friend and our foe. Moving at the pace of a snail on a sedative, the progression between first-blow and moving-on sometimes is the work of many years. But when it comes – that calm place of acceptance – the sweet breath of trust whispers to us, “Things change and end and grief happens. The ones we love are impermanent as are we. Here – even here – in this pain and in this loss, I can find stillness and acceptance.”
And so we live our lives in full knowledge and acceptance to the fact that things do not always go as planned. That things we love eventually fade and good byes are part of human existence.
And so we let go of control. We let go of the belief that we even have control. We live alive and present to what is now without the worry of what is to come. With understanding for what has been.
I write these next words to the ones of my readers who know Jesus and have claimed him for their own. Or rather, been claimed by Him as His own.
While it is true that I have found great comfort and taught myself ways of pain management and peace using these helpful tools of psychology and a broader understanding of the realities of life, enough words could not be added to this ending to tell you of the peace that I have discovered that passes any sort of understanding that I have gained in books.
The solid knowledge that My Father in heaven is as aware of me as I am aware of my children has been a balm to my soul the way no knowledge or important lesson could ever be to me.
On the one hand, we see the need to separate one’s self from the tossing about that happens when emotions are not paired with knowledge. On the other, we must admit that even the most mature among us will face emotions in our lives that could best Hercules. Another given of life that is not among the list above is that we are not enough. Our knowledge is not enough. Demystifying these secrets of the universe and our human make-up is not enough.
Jesus calls us to one thing. Trust.
He is aware of our limitations because he made us. He knows our emotions because they were his idea. I do not believe it is errant or dangerous to explore methods of coping and lessons on handling those emotions well and maturely, but the solid ground that does not shake is not found in books about psychology, but rather in a Book about theology.
He has told us that we will face things that are painful. He has said that we will experience hurts and that nothing is new under the sun. And He has not made silly promises that He won’t give us more than we can bear. But He has given calm assurances of his Presence.
For me, learning about Him came first. Learning to trust while my body felt on fire because the pain of life had become too much happened before the realizations of psychology that I’ve shared above.
Trust is that rare and priceless treasure that wins us the affection of our Heavenly Father. For Him, it has both charm and fascination. Among his countless children, whom he so greatly loves and whom he heaps with tenderness and favors, there are few indeed, who truly entrusting themselves to him, live as veritable children of God. There are as few who respond to his goodness by a trust at once filial and unshaken. And so it is that he welcomes with a love and predilection those souls, all too few in number, who in adversity as in joy, in tribulation and consolation, unfalteringly trust in his paternal love. Such souls truly delight and give immense pleasure to the heart of their heavenly father. There is nothing he is not prepared to give them. “Ask of me half of my Kingdom,” he cries to the trusting soul, and “I will give it to you.”
– Paul deJaegher.
Uncompromising trust in the love of God inspires us to thank God for the spiritual darkness that envelops us, for the loss of income, for the nagging arthritis that is so painful, and to pray from the heart, “Abba, into your hands I entrust my body, mind, and spirit and this entire day – morning, afternoon, evening, and night. Whatever you want of me, I want of me, falling into you and trusting you in the midst of my life. Into your heart I entrust my heart, feeble, distracted, insecure, uncertain. Abba, unto you I abandon myself in Jesus our Lord. Amen.” – Brennan Manning
The enormous difficulty of pain, suffering, and evil remains, heartache lingers, and there are some wounds of the spirit that never close. Unfortunately, organized religion is often of little help in times of spiritual crisis. In fact, if often makes things worse. Any brand of religion that focuses exclusively on the supernatural and makes breezy pronouncements about the afterlife offers no comfort, consolation, or solidarity in our present suffering. The arrogance, rigidity, and blazing enthusiasm of religious fanatics who see in every hurricane and cosmic upheaval a sign that we are on the brink of apocalyptic catastrophe only alienate the shipwrecked and heartbroken.
“However, a fleeting, incomplete, glimpse of God’s back – the obscure yet real, penetrating, and transforming experience if his incomparable glory – awakens a dormant trust. Something is afoot in the universe; Someone filled with transcendent brightness, wisdom, ingenuity, and power and goodness is about. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, somewhere deep down, a Voice whispers, “All is well, and all will be well.” – Brennan Manning