“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” ~ Thomas Merton.
My father went to Jamaica in 1963, having accepted two jobs. One was to be minister of a charge with only three churches (the usual charge had five or more churches), and the other to be chaplain and part time teacher at the local high school. With his wife and five children and several trunks, boxes and much luggage, the family sailed into Kingston harbor on the heels of Hurricane Flora.
One of his churches was up in the hills, up a winding road full of potholes, sheltered by a canopy of breadfruit, mango, avocado trees and more. Cocoa grew well along the roadside, orange pods hanging among green/bronze leaves. It was idyllic in the day time, mostly sheltered from the full forces of the tropical sun, a cool breeze rendering the early morning and late evening a little chilly. At night, the road was dark, rare street lights brightening a limited semi-circle. The bright lights of the occasional oncoming car could be startling. But for the most part the winding ride was slow and sedate, the sounds of the cicadas and frogs providing theme music, the cool breeze through the open window replacing non-existent air conditioning.
As the youngest child, I was the last to leave home. I fondly remember my mother waiting for my father to return from an evening event up in those hills, not sure why he was later than usual. Once safely home, she would regale him with all of the things she had not allowed herself to think: ‘I wouldn’t let myself think you had a flat tire and were trying to change it in the dark; and I wouldn’t let myself think that you had broken down with no one to rescue you; and I wouldn’t let myself think…’ It amused me to wonder how she had not thought of so many things! Years later I would share this story with friends, laughing at my mother’s ability to not worry. When I finally confessed to her how her non-worry had been a tale I told, she listened to the list of things she would not let herself worry about and at the end proudly proclaimed: ‘And I didn’t!’
I don’t know whether it is superstition or fear, but despite my mother’s practice, I grew up feeling it was bad luck to assume bad things would not happen to you. It was almost a form of arrogance to assume that you and your family were immune from tragedy. It was either that or a form of insurance to be prepared for the worst. For each of my four children, when I went into the hospital in labor, the only bag I took contained clothes for me. The bag of baby clothes was only brought to the hospital after the baby was safely delivered and obviously healthy. Like mothers in bygone times, it was as if I would be tempting fate, or evil spirits, or who knows what, if I assumed my babies would be born with no complications.
But the arrogance of such practice was to assume that somehow I had control of the outcome. As if I had the power to protect my unborn children and myself. It can be exhausting to live your life that way. When my daughter had finished high school but still living at home, she had a busy and exciting social life. One of her side jobs (I am pretty sure she never got paid for this) was working with a team that produced a cable TV show. She would be out on South Beach interviewing up and coming rap stars, Jamaican dancehall deejays, local celebrities, till the wee hours. And I would be at home not worrying about the myriad of unpleasant things that could happen to her. There were nights when I would be exhausted, feeling as if I was keeping tragedy at bay for her, by being aware of all of the possibilities. One night, as I realized that I was making myself sick, I realized that if she had gone away to college I would be completely unaware of where she was, how late she was out, and would probably be sleeping soundly. So I made myself stop.
Although all of my children are now in their late thirties and forties, it is so easy to slide back into that eternal mother-worrying mode. I recently felt myself falling back into that rabbit-hole, as my youngest was about to set off on an adventure. Off went my brain imagining bad outcomes, potential problems. I wanted to prepare him, warn him, protect him. I had to recognize how ego-driven my worries were, as if I had control over all of the aspects of his life. Besides which, he has successfully lived away from home for most of his life at this point, and has somehow survived.
The Buddhist practice of letting go of attachment is a challenging one. We become so tangled up in our possessions, in the things we think we cannot live without. But even more challenging is letting go of our attachment to outcomes. So often we believe that we have control over what happens to us and others. As anyone who has ever been in an accident knows, your plans can be disrupted in a moment. Tropical Storms become hurricanes and send plans swirling around in disarray. There is a beautiful freedom in learning to accept what life throws at you as an exciting adventure, with whatever happens being an interesting surprise.
A nice mantra that I have heard religious people use is ‘Let go and let God’, reminding believers that they are not in control. When my mother was busy not worrying, in her own way she was practicing letting go, a lesson I am still learning. It is humbling to relinquish that control, to recognize the opportunities that will arise if you are open to them.
This Friday morning as I get off to a late start, I hope I can live this practice more authentically, but I am sure I will still have moments when my ego will once more act as if I am in control! Have a wonderful weekend, Family, as we give thanks and remember those who have paid the ultimate price for the ego of countries and superpowers.
Thank you so much for this message, Beth. It is especially timely for me. This year has been one of great uncertainty (and it still is) and it’s so hard not to worry about the future. It has made me realise that no, we are not in control, and yes, we need to let go. I tell myself to do that, but my husband is better at it than me.