Letting Go

 

photoYour children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.                                       The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

One must choose whether to live one’s life or tell it.  Jean Paul Sartre

At a time when hair grows on my chin and wrinkles seem to metastasize, my daughter is blossoming into the woman. It is one of the world’s most reliable phenomena, the new replacing the old, one generation reaching its nadir as the next one rises. The old guard gives way to the new ripe with their vigor, energy and dreams, ready to forge new beginnings and carve a place that will be uniquely their own. It could be a bittersweet experience, witnessing and breathing the contrast of age versus youth but I am finding, thanks to my daughter, it is nothing of the sort. Contrary to what I may have expected this is a magic time, one where a doorway has opened to reveal a world of new possibilities and great joy.

In October my daughter and I undertook a journey. For a month my adult child and I visited India together. Our destination was Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. With a group of 14 other souls we spent weeks hiking into its remote base camp to see Kangchenjunga soar up another 2 miles before us. For 2 weeks in a country of 1.2 billion people our group was totally alone.

The journey was hard. We walked a hundred miles over absent trails at great altitude. We camped in the snow and freezing rain, wore the same clothes for 2 weeks, shared a small tent, fell in mud and freezing glacial streams, got sick, cold, fatigued and leech infested but more importantly my daughter and I laughed. We shared the majestic sunrise of the Himalayan peaks bathed in the purple, pink and gold of dawn. We high fived each other on mountain summits that had seemed impossible to reach only hours before. From within our group, strangers became friends. We met individuals whose practice it has been to face adversity and shoulder on. Many shared their stories of disease and tragedy and their resilience in the face of hardship left us in awe.

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What I had not fully anticipated was the importance of the journey within the journey, the one my daughter and I took into our relationship with each other. For me, this was the most important journey of all. Mother daughter interactions can be fraught with danger and a trip of long duration, isolation and stress provides an ideal lab for brewing up conflict. Disagreement over issues of mutual respect, independence and power often form the substrate for such conflict. Knowing this fact prior to the journey, I had to ask myself difficult questions that required honest answers. For a successful trip I knew I needed to practice behaviors that let my daughter be the independent, responsible adult that she is. I knew that she was entitled to make her own mistakes and achieve her own successes without my interference. We needed a balance of power (the adult-adult kind, not the mother- daughter kind) and I needed to be respectful of her right to make her own choices. In other words, my job was to keep my mouth shut.

And what did I learn from this exercise? More than I could possibly imagine!

I witnessed my daughter through the eyes of others and they saw a capable young woman of great integrity, strength and empathy. I observed her make mistakes, accept them and adapt her behavior so they did not recur. I watched her accept hardship for just that, something transient to suffer, endure and then move on. I saw her overcome daily physical adversity and get up without complaint and do it again. Most importantly, I saw her enormous interpersonal skills, how she could instantly read a person, make others feel valued and included or reach out to someone who needed support. My daughter has people skills I will never possess and through her friendships she built me a safe bridge to others, paving the way for friendships of my own. Above all, I saw the light go on in the eyes of our companions simply in anticipation of her company and I felt a fist of pride that in some small way I might have helped her become the person she was.

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Far away in a small corner of the planet I learned that the definition of a successful parent is not to raise good children but to raise good adults and then to stand back and let them go. I discovered that it is in the process of letting go that the whole world shines.DSCF0667

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Resilience as a Metaphor

Forces that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage, which is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of life’s ambiguities.
Martin Luther King Jr

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?
Rabbi Hillel

Imagine you are a freestyle skier executing an aerial maneuver. You are sixty feet in the air, having launched yourself on an impossibly steep trajectory. Somewhere between the glorious rise and certain fall of take off and landing a tiny seed of doubt germinates as you analyze your speed, balance and body position. In that microsecond of awareness you know, that on this day, disaster and landing walk hand in hand.  Your thoracic spine crushes on impact. Doctors use the word paraplegia and you know that means a wheelchair. Can you visualize it? Some may not relate to this scenario, it will not resonate as a potential scene in their life because, after all, they would never consider freestyle skiing in the first place!

Lets try a different scenario. Now imagine you are a successful, athletic businessman who embraces life at full speed. Others whisper with both awe and envy that you are lucky, you have it all, but at 45 your physician informs you that you have a rare cancer. Your only chance for survival involves removal of the liver you cannot do without. You must find a compatible living donor – a friend or relative who will give you a portion of their liver, undergo risky transplant surgery and, should you survive the complications, you will require potent anti rejection drugs every 12 hours just to stay alive.

Or this. On an otherwise ordinary day your only child is killed in a motor vehicle accident. You must weather the confusion, fear, guilt, anger and loss. The world grinds to a halt as you try to recall every detail of your last interaction with your child. It is your job to make sense from senselessness. You take one more breath and one more step to survive this day and try to comprehend the eternity that follows.

If any of the above stories were yours, how would you cope? How would you fare if life had dealt you such a hand?  The fact is, none of the above are stories, they are events from the lives of real people that I have come to know. All of these individuals actively contribute to the rich tapestry that is the community in which I live. Soon the freestyle skier will compete in the Sochi Para Olympics (with a silver medal from the Vancouver Olympics in his pocket). He is a motivational speaker whose brilliant career is the substance of a recent Ted Talk (and the above video, The Freedom Chair) . The businessman has just returned from 14 days of wilderness trekking in the Himalaya. He lives everyday in the present moment and takes life as it comes. The child was an organ donor for many others and she lives on as a part of them each and every day. A scholarship for other youth with similar goals and aspirations has been set up in her name so that they may venture where she once did. The parents continue to do the activities they shared with their child, and find comfort and continuity in this. They have established meaningful relationships with her friends and together they keep alive the memories that are the rich legacy of a short life shared.

What all of these extraordinary people have in common is resilience. Psychologists define resilience as the ability to bounce back from hardship and to carry on. It is a priceless commodity, for those individuals who possess it are rich beyond measure while those who do not remain poor in the face of material wealth. Tragedy, accident and disease form a community of souls and at some time or another we will all gain citizenship. How we fare in this new community will largely depend on our individual resilience.

Fortunately, one does not have to be extraordinary to be resilient. Without question it is the ordinary citizen, the one who does not let hardship define them, that I admire most. These individuals are not known beyond their circle of family or friends but they fully participate in life in spite of great odds. Some days in the office I will see in tandem individuals from both ends of the resilience spectrum. I recall a patient suffering from a soft tissue disorder unable to carry out many of the activities of daily life. Their  appointment was planned to discuss a long-term disability application, as the patient was unable to work. During the visit I was asked to take a telephone call. On the line was a dentist, seeking medical advice. After answering his questions he informed me he would soon be away for a holiday. He and a friend (who was confined to a wheelchair following a mountain bike accident) were off to kite ski. As I made my way back to the patient’s room, I was shaken by the conundrum before me. Why such a vast difference between how each individual deals with adversity? Why does one individual feel totally disabled by a medical condition while another individual feels a wheelchair is not an impediment to kite skiing?  More frightening was the question, Where in the spectrum would I stand if these hardships were mine? The answer of course, depends on the resilience of the individual, and you will never know the answer until it is your turn.

My next thought was, “What constitutes a resilient person”, and  “Am I resilient”?

Resilient individuals have the capacity to rise above, even flourish in the life that follows misfortune. If they were the clay of a future vessel, adversity molds them but resilience is the kiln that fires who they become. They come through the fire of hardship transformed, never defeated. They maintain a positive outlook, adapt to crises and moved on. Their misfortune does not come to define them but remains a paragraph in the story of their transformation. Such individuals serve as role models for how we would hope to see ourselves under similar circumstances.

Psychologists have found personality traits that correlate to high levels of resilience; a positive attitude, flexibility, an openness to change -what psychologist call an internal locus of control (the ability to affect the outcome of an event by personal action). Resilient people identify more with the survivor role than the victim role. They have strong problem solving skills and strong interpersonal networks. They are able to seek and accept help. Such individuals experience the setbacks of life as acutely as anyone else; feel stress just as intensely, but they move on to find solutions because, after all, setbacks are part of life and one can always move the goal posts and start again.

Fortunately resilience can be learned and the learning can come from such simple things as setting goals, addressing problems, nurturing and respecting your body, focusing on your strengths rather than your weaknesses, cultivating and feeding your friendships and realizing that, above all, each of us plays an active part in our destiny. The single action of stepping up to the plate, acknowledging that this life is yours to live, will vastly increase personal resilience. In the face of hardship when adversity comes calling, it will always be more successfully handled from the driver’s seat.

Understanding a concept such as resilience does not make it so and as a result the question remains – How will you do and how will I when misfortune comes to call? Lets hope we both have high resilience.