When I was falling apart most spectacularly (an event that was preceded, and followed, by lesser meltdowns) I started to mainline self-help, psychology, and philosophy books. Surely after all these years of human existence someone had the answer, or if not THE answer, surely someone had MY answer. I just had to find it.
The tab on this website called “Collective Wisdom” was born out of that period in my life where all I did during the hours I was not at work, was lie in bed going from one book to the next, highlighting and scribbling furiously in the margins. The first two points that emerged, “You are your own teacher” and “the only certitude in life is change” were heartbreaking for me at the time.
I desperately wanted someone (anyone) besides me to claim expert status over my life. And I desperately wanted to land on a solution that would be stable and stand the test of time. But over and over these wise thinkers, writers, social workers, philosophers, and poets told me, I was the ultimate expert of my experience, and the terms of life would always be a moving target.
As liberating as it is to be in charge of your own life, it is exhausting too. And when things don’t go well, it can be crushing when the only person to blame is the one staring back at you in the bathroom mirror each morning.
And the shiftiness of the world almost feels tailor made to drive humans crazy, though we’d no doubt be bored to tears without it.
I spend a lot of time thinking about these first two nuggets of “collective wisdom.” How do I become a better version of myself? How can I cultivate adaptability and resiliency for the shifting terms of the world?
But I don’t spend enough time thinking about this collective wisdom point: “Self-compassion is essential.” The truth is, some days it’s impossible to be the expert of your life, or to ride the waves that roll in with equanimity. Some days you just have to survive. I had one of those days yesterday. A day where my morning started with hard news from someone I love and ended with my phone getting stolen when I’d distractedly left it in a public restroom.
I came home after work and laid on my kitchen floor and just wept for a while. And felt terribly sorry for myself. I know I am one of the lucky ones, because I have good people who show up for me when I am in a pile on the floor. But to be clear, I wasn’t in the mood for counting my blessings. I just wanted someone else to take charge, someone else to corral the chaos and help me regain some stability.
And as this was all unfolding, my thought was, “I am a 32-year-old child” “Why can’t I keep it together?” It wasn’t until this morning that any shred of self-compassion made it onto the scene.
And I re-read this poem, “Advice to Myself” written by Louise Erdrich
Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.
Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.
Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don't even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don't sort the paper clips from the screws from the saved baby teeth
or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.
And I thought to myself, maybe I should burn the books, and just re-read this poem until it is tattooed into the folds of my brain and the chambers of my heart. “Your heart, that place you don’t even think of cleaning out. That closet stuffed with savage mementos.” The good work is never done. The world spins madly on. Maybe the only real necessity for the day is this poem, and this perfect dog, stretched out beside me.