I’ve noticed that, as a rule, we don’t particularly care to talk about how old we are, so I was amused when a friend did some arithmetic based on some of my recollections and determined that I am 70. We had been discussing worry and he wondered if I worry less now that I am older (not “old,” mind you, but “older”). It’s an interesting question and part of the broader issue of how my experience of feeling has evolved.
Mark Twain, on the occasion of attaining his seven decade milestone, said that now that he had climbed the seven-terraced summit, he had earned the right to tell everyone else how to get there. Then, as it turned out, his advice was to find your own road, so, even though my younger friend was, in his way, asking for advice, I preferred to just talk about my own road, and that road has been rocky, to say the least.
You see, in 1988, my son, Andrew, died when he was hit by a car. I remember, as if it were yesterday, that first day and then the next and the next, each crawling by as I struggled to comprehend. My feelings and my very consciousness were at war with unacceptable reality and that war defied any sense of internal peace. In order to stay close to Andrew and to find myself amid the sharply swirling sensations that buffeted me, I wrote him letters, letters that span over 20 years and that express my deeply intense feelings, from the early raw pain to the ultimate integration of sadness and loss into a new-found ability to embrace life. My first article in this venue will begin with where I am now, nearly 30 years later.
My letters to Andrew have now been published as a book, entitled Dear Andrew. In the last letter, I described an event in which I attended a training so that I could become a facilitator in the Compassionate Friends chapter I joined in 2008. In the go around that launched the session, I heard myself say, “I have come to a place of peace in my life and in my grief, and I want to share that peace with others.”
At this time, I suddenly realized that, after unsuccessfully trying for decades to stop biting my fingernails and without any further effort on my part, my nails had become whole and healthy. How? And, beyond fingernails, what does it mean to feel peace? I had to write one more letter to Andrew to discover why I said what I said and what it means to me. And, indirectly, it turns out, that explanation also answers my friend’s question.
Peace, as it is portrayed in movies and television, is an absence of feeling – a lack of worry, of fear, of anger – a lack of any intense feeling at all. But, such feelings are natural outgrowths of caring, of loving, of attachment to life itself. Is the price of peace a form of intellectual and emotional detachment? I don’t believe that.
I believe that intense emotions – such as love, fear, anger, or joy – are all compatible with peace and, to me, such feelings are the essence of life. Intense feeling is often a companion of meaningful events. Indeed, it is possible that we fully comprehend the significance of many of our life events only through the depth of the emotions they evoke. The profound sense of loss that we parents feel after the death of child speaks to our deep love for the living child that still breathes inside us. The early years of discord and pain seem to preclude any future prospect of peace. It is simply unthinkable. What would peace even mean?
In my letter to Andrew, I describe peace as a presence. “It is an acceptance, a form of being. It is the living presence seemingly of another species. It is the organic extension of another dimension. It is timeless and yet of the moment. It is more than the tranquility of the ocean depths, for that is but the inertia of water’s weight, ponderous and insensible. This peace is solemn, yes, but sensible and even sensitive. It does not seek to crush, but to reach out, to share by harmonizing all that it touches. It is a soft melody that sings in the beating of the heart, soundlessly, hoping that all can hear. This peace is the soul of passion and compassion. It knows death and yearns for life. It comprehends and respects age and it embraces youthfulness, without need of youth. It is a positive pressure that exactly balances within against without, above against below, open against closed. It is the soft voice of experience, and even wisdom, and it is no longer silent.”
It is a presence. It is the acceptance of feeling, any feeling. It is the tolerance, or more accurately, the embracing, of seemingly contradictory emotions, like sadness and joy. It is the welcoming of all internal states, as natural and right, and therefore, the peace is both with and within myself.
And so, do I still worry? Of course I do. But I no longer try to suppress that worry. I no longer attempt to make it go away. I accept that I worry sometimes, and then, as with all feeling, it washes over me and changes to another feeling. In this way, I don’t experience worry the same way I used to in my comparative youth, because it no longer eats at me. It no longer persists and saps my energy. Perhaps a better word for it would be concern. Does that mean I no longer worry?
And what does the soft voice of peace say? From Dear Andrew, the voice says, “Come to me with your woes and I will share my caring. Come to me with your sorrow and I will share my understanding. Come to me with your despair and I will share my hope.”
What is your experience of worry? How have your feelings evolved through the years and through the tears?
I hope that you, too, find peace.
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