Let’s Call It “Experience”

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

— Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

When I was a kid, I wanted an Easy Bake Oven.  Think about it: a toy in which a lightbulb provides the heat source to bake all kinds of delectable confections and a kid obsessed with delicious goodies.  Why wouldn’t the two be destined for one another?  But, I never got one.  Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.  The other day I was talking with friends, and someone said, in the stilted tones of a disgruntled 10-year-old,  “I never got one either. My mom thought they were stupid.”  My own mother’s sentiments exactly.

The Christmas orgy of gift-giving affords many opportunities to think about what to do, or what it means, when you don’t get what you want.  Disappointment in the gifts received is only the tip of that iceberg.  We hang so many hopes and expectations on the holiday — we want someone to stick a bow on us and say, “You’re my present this year” like in the coffee commercial.  We want that moment when we are completely aware that our life is rich and full of meaning (resulting in our buddy Clarence getting his wings).  We want to sing in four-part harmony about the white Christmas of our dreams while wearing gorgeous red-velvet dresses…ok, maybe that one is just me!  You get the picture, though.

I, personally, have been lucky in two ways.  First, growing up in a family with six children and a limited income, I had many opportunities to learn that I might not get everything I wanted.  I learned many coping mechanisms for this, from swallowing my disappointment with a 2000 calorie chaser of fudge to learning to be happy with what I did have.  Admittedly, some mechanisms were more helpful than others.

The second way in which I have been lucky is that, in the past year or so, I’ve gotten more than I ever expected on so many levels. I won a cruise, for crying out loud, not to mention healing relationships and recovering self-esteem along with some pretty amazing bike rides.  And I’ve been learning healthier coping mechanisms too.

Which, it turns out I’ve needed recently.  I got so accustomed to getting whatever it seemed I wanted, that I started to forget that life doesn’t work that way 100% of the time.  And BLAM! I ran smack up against it: not getting something I really wanted. Had this been something material, like an iPhone or a Nook, I think I would have taken it in stride.  But in the realm of emotional desires, I’ve discovered it can be much harder to find a way to manage extreme disappointment.  Here’s how I’m proceeding:

1.  I remind myself of the Randy Pausch quote, above.  Experience, as he refers to it, is just another name for living life as fully as possible.  And that is, deep down, what I truly want.

2.  I remind myself to be grateful for all I do have.  The list is long, and astounds me when I really think about it.

3.  I surround myself with people who make me laugh, to balance the private moments when, sometimes, I cry.

4.  I take action in other aspects of my life in order to feel positive momentum:  craft room clean, check; menu planned for the week, check; Tupperware organized, check. (If you know me, you’d better be laughing at this last one – when have I EVER been the kind of person who has orderly Tupperware?)

In these ways, even the awful feeling of not getting your heart’s desire can be transformed. Not what you expected, but not at all shabby.  And you’re able to remember that gifts come in their own time.  I believe that hope and patience are excellent qualities to cultivate because they contribute to resilience in the face of disappointment. And because, despite what you feel today, you can never know what the future holds.

Which brings me back to the Easy Bake Oven.  I received a Christmas gift on which there was a tag which read, “From Santa:  Sorry!  I’m a few years late with this. ENJOY!”  I’m sure you know what was waiting under the wrapping paper. Sometimes, if not always, you do get the things you want. Maybe in a slightly delayed time frame, or from a source you never anticipated.  Being ready for either outcome is, perhaps, what experience is meant to teach us.

Learning to Hear

“The first duty of love, is to listen.”  — Paul Tillich

In September 2002, Heather Whetstone, who had been the first deaf Miss America, had cochlear implant surgery which allowed her to hear again.  When they turned the device on, she had to begin the complicated process of learning to hear, something she hadn’t done since she was a small child.

I remember watching her being interviewed on television the very next day, day two of being a hearing person.  She described little sounds she was able to identify.  She said she was in the bathroom and heard the sounds of putting on makeup and spraying her hair.  Then, she turned the water on.  She said, “And it was the most beautiful sound.  It reminded me of my hero Helen Keller.  She felt the water and understood that it had a name.  My joy was like that.”

I want to remember to find the joy in small things — waking refreshed in the morning, good nutritious food, a body that is healthy and works in all its parts. I want to linger on the goodness in my day instead of focus and obsess on the petty annoyances and frustrations.  I want to practice seeing the beauty in people who cross my path rather than picking out their flaws.

I also want to refresh my skills in the art of listening.  The past couple of weeks a parade of young people needing love and guidance have marched through my office. They have frustrated me, they have fought my efforts to assist them, they have worked hard to keep me at arm’s length.  I don’t blame them for that — I’m an administrator sticking my nose into their business, into the parts of their lives they would prefer no one even notice.  But I need to remember to hear what lies beneath the surface.   Sue Patton Thoele says, “Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker.  When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening our spirits expand.”  I think we all want this, for ourselves and others!

If, as Paul Tillich says, the first duty of love is to listen, then I must try to do my duty. Listen closely enough to shut out the distractions and ambient noise so I can focus on what is important.  In other words, listen with my ears to what is being spoken, but hear with my heart what is being said.

The Oracle

If you’ve ever visited Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota, you’ve seen him:  The Oracle.  A rock formation that, for all the world, looks like the profile of a wise tribal elder.  I have a postcard I’ve saved for years showing a photo of The Oracle, part of a collection of items and tokens representing places I’ve visited where humans have discovered some special “power” – predictions for the future, healing miracles, spiritual knowledge which arrives via interaction with the place.  I have always felt the pull of these magical sites, and I am not above finding some belief or power in these places myself.

In my late 20s, I visited an astrologer who drew my natal chart for me.  In my 30s, I visited a well-known psychic, who told me, among other things, that no one understands exactly how much I love the odd and unusual.  In my 40s, I had a very powerful experience during a massage with a spiritual healer.  For the most part, I engaged in these interactions out of curiosity and a sense of play.  However, part of me would have been quite happy to receive a little advance glimpse of things to come — if only one of them had been able to chart at least a small part of the future for me!

Most of my life, I’ve tried to predict the future in small ways — if I do this, what will happen?  if I put myself out there, will I get the result I want?  if I try, will I succeed?  As a result I have often opted for the safe path, the path I can predict.  Since predicting the future can only be done with success for the very near future (say, the next ten minutes) my vision has been pretty short. And my choices have been painfully short-sighted.  I have failed to try many things out of fear about the outcome.

I copied a quote years ago from a book called Ecodynamics, which was way above my head, but which contained this scary thought (scary to me, anyway):  “We may have ten possible images of tomorrow and for each one of these there may be ten images of the next day, giving a hundred possible images  of the day after that, and so on, which means that the uncertainty of the future increases rapidly as we move our imagination into it.”

Coming across this quote again recently, I realized that I’m not so frightened by it now.  The truth is, I am in love with today, which makes the future a much less scary proposition.  Do I still dream and fantasize?  Sure!  But I am learning that entering fully into each day means that I expend less energy worrying about what might happen tomorrow.  What will happen will happen — I may fail, I may succeed.  Either will lead to the next experience.  No need to consult an Oracle, or bless myself with the holy mud I carried away from El Santuario de Chimayo.

This new approach is proving to be both challenging and exhilarating when applied to my relationships.  So often, I have tried to take relationships to specific places — sometimes having whole conversations with others inside my own head as if I know before an interaction how it will go.  Imagining that I can create an “if this, then that” equation in my dealings with other people.  Letting go of definitions, of predictions, and of specific outcomes can be scary because it makes you aware of what has always been true:  you have no control over what other people feel or how they respond.  Thinking you can control others is just another form of magical thinking.

The country group, Lady Antebellum has a new song (which I heard on Pandora this afternoon) called “Ready to Love Again”, and the chorus speaks to this lack of attachment to a particular outcome.  It says:  “Yeah, I’m ready to feel now, no longer afraid of the fall down. It must be time to move on now, without the fear of how it might end…”  The future holds lots of endings, and equally as many beginnings.  My current plan is to follow today where it leads, and fall in love with tomorrow when it comes.