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The Benevolent Guide

A few days ago, my partner Karen’s beloved father passed away after a long illness. It was a very gradual departure; for weeks, everyone thought that each hour might be Charlie’s last. The days immediately following his passing were unthinkably grueling for Karen and her family, but I’ll say this for imminent death: it clearly differentiates the things that matter from the things that don’t. Being together matters; how we look doesn’t. Love matters; status doesn’t. Having a roof over our heads matters; having a mansion doesn’t. Peace matters so much that by comparison, literally nothing else does.

A few months ago an interviewer asked me, “What are you most grateful for?” and I found myself cheerfully blurting, “Death!” There was a long silence, and then I stammered, “Er, well, it’s nice to think we don’t have to just, you know, keep doing stuff.” The interviewer did not seem to be going there with me. Oh, well, I thought; when I’m dying it won’t matter what she thinks of me. And then I remembered: We’re all dying!

Getting past the fear this creates has been a life’s work for me—a work very much still in progress. But after schlepping away at it for years, I now feel more awe and wonder than dread of death, and the knowledge of its inevitability gives me permission to do more and more of what matters, less and less of what doesn’t. In Africa, where I spent June, I had few possessions, no telephone or email, a very simple schedule. Since returning I’ve given away most of my clothes and set out to minimize things like unnecessary meetings, housework, correspondence, and especially thoughts that distract me from the amazement of being alive for a little while.

Think about whatever you have planned for the next few hours. Would you do this thing if you were currently helping a loved one cross the threshold of death? Will this thing matter to you at all when you’re the one crossing that threshold? If not, stop. Do something that matters in the face of mortality. Living this way makes death a benevolent guide that shows you how to create the best possible life you can have. And doing that brings peace, the peace that matters so much that nothing else can ever compare.

Heartbreak Academy: How to Make it Through

In her illuminating writing manual, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott recounts the story of a woman who goes to the zoo and sees a male gorilla sleeping against the bars of his cage. The woman is so entranced by this magnificent beast that she reaches out to touch him, whereupon the gorilla wakes up, grabs her arm, and mauls her half to death before zookeepers can intervene. Days later the woman is still in the intensive care unit when a friend comes to visit. “God, you look like you’re in a lot of pain,” says the friend sympathetically. “Pain,” says the injured woman, “you don’t know pain. He doesn’t call, he doesn’t write….”

Ah, yes, the exquisite agony of heartbreak. We who have experienced it know that romantic love is a fall-in, crawl-out proposition: When you’re bonding with that special someone, everything is wondrously effortless; when the relationship hits the skids, getting through an ordinary day feels like climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen. But every instance of heartbreak can teach us powerful lessons about creating the kind of love we really want. 

Mind you, just having your heart broken won’t get you a degree in love-ology. If you learn nothing from heartbreak, you’ll keep repeating the same old painful subject matter in one bad relationship after another. If you refuse to love at all, you will guarantee isolation and pain, rather than preventing them. The only way to graduate from Heartbreak Academy is to really master the material, and that means absorbing crucial lessons about your true self, your true needs, and the nature of true love. 

Course offerings from the Heartbreak Academy of Emotional Pain

There are many ways to get your heart broken, all of them highly educational. Breakup 101 will teach you all about the discouragement and guilt that set in when you end a relationship that just isn’t working. In Situational Heartbreak 165, you’ll learn about the pain that occurs when you and your loved one are separated by circumstances such as geographic distance or (God forbid) death. Then there’s Advanced Conflict 206, a combat-training course you enter when you and your significant other become locked in a war of wills. Most unpleasant of all, in my opinion, is Unilateral Torture 262. This class starts when you’re deeply in love, investing full trust and openness in a relationship, and suddenly your partner calls the whole thing off or simply stops calling at all. It’s like getting hit by a truck, only way slower and more humiliating. 

Study Guide: How to Make It Through Heartbreak Academy

I was in my first semester of Unilateral Torture 262, a class I’d taken three or four times already, when I stumbled across a concept in a psychology textbook that finally allowed me to learn my lesson and move on. I don’t remember anything else about that book, but I recall one crucial sentence perfectly. “Some patients,” it said, “mistakenly believe that their loneliness is a product of another person’s absence.” I stopped and reread this maybe ten times, but it still baffled me. I could have sworn that my loneliness was a product of my ex–significant other’s absence. If not, then what on earth was it? 

Finally, slowly, over the next several days, weeks, years, the light dawned: My loneliness, and the antidote to it, did not come from the significant others I’d loved and lost. I’d been emotionally isolated before I ever fell in love. Something about certain people helped me lower the drawbridge over the moat that separated me from the world, but in the final analysis I was the one who’d actually done the trick. The power to bring me out of solitude—or to push me back into it—had never belonged to any other person. It was mine and only mine.

This realization is the most important thing you need to get through Heartbreak Academy with minimum effort and maximum positive effect. Realizing that your heartbreak is not a product of the other person’s absence brings the pain into an arena where you can work with it, instead of riveting your attention on some missing lover you may never see again and could never really control. Each time you find yourself longing for the love that was, asking yourself the following study-guide questions will help you learn the lessons of heartbreak and move on to a relationship that works. 

Study Question #1: How Old Do I Feel? 

Most often, heartbroken people are unknowingly grieving a loss or trauma rooted in childhood or adolescence. That’s because we tend to fall in love with people who remind us of those who cared for us—even badly—when we were young and totally vulnerable. We become childlike when we feel securely adored, letting go of all inhibition. The failure of adult relationships is often caused by the dysfunctions we internalized as children, and the devastation we endure when we’re rejected almost always opens ancient wounds, making us feel as bereft as an abandoned little kid.

If you ask yourself how old you feel when you’re in the worst throes of heartbreak, you’ll probably find that a surprisingly low number pops into your head. Whatever the age of your grieving inner child, it’s your job to comfort her, as you would help a toddler or a teen who had lost a parent. Do small, practical, caring things for yourself: Listen to a song that helps you grieve, schedule a play date with your best friend, wrap a soft blanket around yourself and let the tears come. Most important of all, give your childish self the chance to talk. Open your journal or visit your therapist, and let yourself express your anger and anguish in all its irrational, immature glory. 

As you do this, you will almost certainly find yourself grieving losses you suffered way back when, as well as the one you’ve just endured. This is good: It means that you are finally progressing beyond ways of thinking and acting that didn’t work for you early in your life and still aren’t working today. Acknowledging and comforting that younger self is absolutely essential to easing your pain, recovering from your wounds, and finding new sources of healthy love. 

Study Question #2: What Did My Lost Love Help Me Believe About Myself? 

Look back on the time when you were falling in love, and you’ll realize that though much (or some) of your time with your lover was fabulous, the relationship made you happy even when the two of you were physically apart. The really potent part of love is that it allows you to carry around beliefs about yourself that make you feel special, desirable, precious, innately good. To graduate from Heartbreak Academy, you have to learn that neither your ex-beloved nor the fact of being in love invested you with these qualities. Your lover couldn’t have seen them in you, even temporarily, if they weren’t part of your essential being. 

Make a list of all the things you let yourself believe when you saw yourself mirrored in loving eyes. Write them as facts: I’m fascinating. I’m beautiful. I’m funny. I’m important. Realize that you chose to believe these things in the context of your relationship, and now that the relationship is over, you have another choice: either to reject a loving view of yourself or to believe the truth. 

But, you may say, what if these positive things aren’t really true at all? What if the truth is that I’m hopelessly unlovable? Well, let me remind you that when you believe you’re an insignificant bird dropping on the sooty gray pavement of life, you feel unspeakably horrible. On the other hand, when you opt for believing what love once taught you about yourself, the core of your despair is replaced by sweetness, however bitter your subsequent loss. I say, use what works. Self-concept is a self-fulfilling prophecy: When we let ourselves believe that we’re wonderfully attractive, we act wonderfully attractive. By letting yourself believe the most loving things your ex ever said about you, you can get rid of the bathwater but keep the baby, honoring and preserving what was precious in your relationship, while letting go of the pain. 

Study Question #3: What Did My Relationship Give Me Permission To Do?

Being in love is so intoxicating, that special person so compelling, that lovers often drop some of the obligations and rules that dominated their lives before they met. When you’re in love, you may forget that you don’t usually allow yourself to splurge on perfume, or write poetry, or be wildly sexual, or say no to invitations you’d rather not accept. When your relationship is over, the bleak prospect of going back to the rules can drive you to the brink of despair, making you pine obsessively for your lost love to return and free you again. Eliminate the middleman. Free yourself. 

You can start by making another list. This time write down all the forbidden things you allowed yourself to do when you were madly in love with someone who was madly in love with you. Now give yourself permission to do all those things anyway. 

Nothing can make your trip through Heartbreak Academy easy or painless. Grieving will always hurt, but it is not mindless torture. It’s more like panning for gold. Recurrent floods of sadness and anger gradually wash away the rubble of the defunct relationship, leaving only the bits of treasure: the remembered moments of real communion, a new understanding of your own mistakes, a clear picture of the dysfunctions you will never tolerate again.

Letting these precious things emerge naturally means that you will retain the real love you’ve received, even as you let go of your former lover. And realizing that you hold the keys to your own healing will keep sadness from becoming despair and help you master the lessons a broken heart can teach. It means the relationships you create after that will be more trustworthy, the unavoidable losses less devastating. 

“The world breaks everyone,” Hemingway once wrote, “and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” A broken heart is simply a heart that has a chance to become stronger. It’s a heart that is more self-sufficient, more open to the truth, and more capable of lasting love. 

Your Position From the Starting Blocks

We all know that change is occurring more rapidly and dramatically today than it ever has in history.  This may be either thrilling or terrifying, depending on the day and how ready we are at any moment to go along with dramatic transformations.  For many months, I’ve had the feeling that many of us humans have been milling around like athletes waiting for a marathon to begin.  Recently, it feels to me as though we’re all being told to take our position in the starting blocks.

I’m not sure exactly what this means, only that it feels tremendously exciting and somewhat alarming at the same time.  I’ve noticed two categories of reaction in myself and the people I know:  Some highly evolved individuals are positioning themselves happily and easily for some exciting unknown transformation; others are kicking, screaming and resisting like race horses who have decided at the last minute that the whole event is just too strange and frightening to tolerate. 

This translates into divided extremes of emotion.  There seems to be no middle ground; either life feels incredibly joyful and exciting or absolutely horrid.  I, myself, alternate between these two extremes.  When I am completely in line with my purpose and following my inner compass, I feel almost intoxicated with joy.  When I am resisting in some way, I feel like week old road kill.  It seems that the biggest difference lies in my ability to relax.  There was once a time when hard work and intense willpower moved me effectively toward my goals and filled me with enthusiasm.  Nowadays, hard work and willpower feel horrible, even when I can muster them, and prove entirely ineffective.  On the other hand, when I give up struggling and acknowledge that I have zero control and no more energy, things suddenly begin to work in my favor, as if by magic. 

I watched this process very intently as my friend Jayne passed away, which as you probably know, was simply a change of address as far as I’m concerned.  People talk about how courageously people fight their illnesses, and Jayne fought ferociously, but the effect of her struggle was horrific.  A few days before her death, when she completely stopped struggling, it opened a door to peaceful and joyful transformation that uplifted Jayne and everyone around her.  Watching the grieving process of her son Joey, who has Down syndrome, was another astonishing example of the power inherent in refusing to struggle.  Joey flows in and out of sadness with absolutely no resistance, and as a result, the pain of this time has been intermittent, alternating with periods of true and enormous happiness.

For anything new to be born, the existing arrangement of particles and situations must die.  Struggling to survive is laudable and natural.  I believe the “deaths” we experience as we take our positions for a new phase of history are benevolent and necessary, and are, therefore, best greeted with relaxed acceptance.  This is a wild time to be alive.  If you feel yourself being moved into position, you might justifiably feel terrified.  My advice to you this month:  Stop struggling.  Relax.  The signal to run is coming.

You Human Beagles Are Seriously Mellowing My Harsh

Physicist Niels Bohr once said that an expert is someone who’s made every possible mistake in a narrow field.  Well, I hate to toot my own horn, but I’ve made every possible mistake in about a million fields.  Take blogging.  As you can see, I started off to write a blog-treatise on leadership, which became a bogged blog when I reached the topic “leading up in an evil system.”  

So as I prepared the next post, I found myself writing a meandering thesis on the nature of morality—how do you know what’s evil, when is it your duty to act against an evil system and when can you be excused for going along, consider the fact that terrorists always think they’re trying to change an evil system….  Ye gods.  It was a Blog Hydra—every time I’d whack off a chunk of topic, two more would grow in its place.

My blog hydra

My Blog Hydra

So anyway, I’m putting all those thoughts into my next book, because they’re book topics.  Not so much blog topics.  I think. 

I am reminded of a time I gave a speech in one of the Carolinas—I don’t remember which Carolina, because I was speaking so often during that period that all 50 states blend together.  I was tired and jetlagged, and my speech—how shall I say—sucked, sucked, sucked.   I went back to my hotel room with the sound of pity-applause scorching my ears, and schlumped onto the bed under several tons of shame.  Whoever had invited me to speak gave me a lovely room right on the beach, but I closed the drapes, feeling that if I couldn’t deliver a decent product, I didn’t deserve to look at the ocean. 

Verboten to the Verklempt

Far too verklempt to watch TV news or drama, I settled on an Animal Planet program that seemed cheerful—a touching reality show about a woman and her wonderful service dog—until the dog got sick and had to be euthanized. 

I spent the evening in the fetal position, numbed by bitter reality: I’d failed as a speaker, the Carolinians had been disappointed, and someday my dog would die.  This all happened some six or seven years ago.  Last week should have been much worse.  Last week the reality was that I’d failed as a blogger, my Facebook friends had been disappointed, and my dog actually did die. 

And yet, it was a great week, thanks to people like you.

R.I.P. Cookie

I’ve had pets before, and loved them all.  But Cookie the beagle taught me why some people spend more on their dogs than on their educations.  Every morning of his life, he pressed the top of his head against any part of my body he could reach, cooing ecstatically just because I existed.  He was with me during every grueling hour of writing and every rejection letter, before I’d published a thing. No matter how many all-nighters I pulled, Cookie stayed up with me.  He was present for every life-coaching session held in my home office, greeting every client with deafening howls, parking himself in my lap, and silently emitting aromas to back up my tentative advice.

He was a good boy.

 

Cookie the Good, 1995-2009

True, he was also incredibly old—about 105, in people-age.  He’d been partially fossilized for years, though we knew he was alive because he kept gaining weight.  Two years ago, when he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, I started feeding him anything he wanted, figuring he’d last a couple of weeks at the most.  But the new food rules made Cookie so happy he went into remission.  Hefty remission.  I thought I’d solved the weight problem when I promoted him from beagle to Bassett hound, but his metabolism kept slowing, he kept finding chocolate bars in my luggage.  I was on the verge of promoting him again, this time to Land Manatee, when Fate intervened.

Cookie was out for a waddle when we met a human friend who sometimes gives him biscuits.  He took off at a dead sprint and tore a ligament in his knee.  It was the beginning of the end.  Last week, an emergency vet gave us morphine and bad news (which as far as I’m concerned should always be offered in tandem).  Cookie’s organs were simply shutting down.  Doped as he was, when I put my arms around him Cookie lifted his head and gave me that utterly guileless gaze I loved to distraction for 15 years.  Then he set his head on my hands and sighed with relief, and never breathed in again.

I cried for three days and two reasons: 1) because the end of a well-lived life is so sweet and sad and poignant; and 2) because so many people—this may mean you—were so nice to me.  Despite my inadequate blogging, despite my failure to produce a cogent, snappy essay on the nature of evil and our moral responsibility to end it, dozens of people have sent me emails, cards, letters, and other varieties of kind wishes, just because my fat old dog died.

This has radically shifted my concept of reality.  I’ve always thought the only way to earn acceptance is through continuous good performance—and even then, I believed, people who don’t approve of the performance want to smack me briskly about the head and face with a croquet mallet. 

I am being forced to reconsider this position. 

Beagle Invasion

So many people have offered me love in the past few days, for no earthly reason except pure kindness, that I’ve come to a radical conclusion.  It seems that the world is filled not only with human beings, but with human beagles.  People who love you even when you’re not “productive.”  People who don’t care how much you earn, sleep, weigh, or vacuum.  People who accept and encourage and care, even when you fall off the communication map for months on end.

Who Some People Really Are

So this is my new attempt to make a few less mistakes in the narrow field of blogging.  I’m sure I’ll make many more.  Someday, maybe I’ll have made so many mistakes I’ll actually be an expert.  But for now, I just had to write and say THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU to every human beagle out there.  I’ll never deserve to have you in my, life, just as I never deserved to have Cookie.  The miracle is, we get love whether we deserve it or not.  In fact, it may come to find us just when we think we deserve it least. 

Now, that’s something to blog about.