It’s time to share with you the secret of whatever success I can claim in my life.
This weekend past I spent in a residential workshop whose theme was “Creating Community”. At one point we were posed the question, “What is your gift to community? What is the special thing that you bring to your communities?” Everyone was invited to speak at the microphone for less than one minute on this theme.
Mine was very simple: “I bring to my communities that ‘there’s nothing wrong here’,” I said. “At that moment when we’re all looking at each other thinking, this is really f****d, I’m the one who says, ‘There’s nothing wrong here.’”
Well, in truth, I don’t actually SAY it, as that often wouldn’t go down well. When things are f****d no one is ready to believe there’s nothing wrong here—me often included. But in those moments I know it’s my job to step into a way of being that communicates a certain lightness and a refusal to bring more drama and angst to a situation.
At any rate, during the break after the workshop session, a number of people came up to me. One woman had written “There’s nothing wrong here” in beautiful calligraphy up the full length of her left arm, and said she’d be having it tattooed there. Another man was trying to get his head around what I meant, and it is for him that I’m writing this post. What do I mean when I say there’s-nothing-wrong-here?
You might well ask me: How can this be a good thing? Have you no eyes?! As someone who claims to bring a realistic attitude to the world, how can you possibly say that there is nothing wrong? What about my sister’s baby who died, my broken heart when my husband left me, my best friend’s cancer, war in the Middle East, global warming, North Koreans going nuclear? For that matter, what about my teenager’s messy room, with God knows what growing in the corners?
Oh, yes, there are many things that break my heart, that enrage me, that scare the teeth off me. But I find that after a few breaths (admittedly it sometimes takes a few hundred thousand) I can stand back far enough, get enough perspective, to see that I accomplish less than nothing in a state of concern. That’s when there’s-nothing-wrong-here can kick in.
I can remember being on a course once and hearing this instruction: “Go outside tonight and tell your concerns to the stars—and you will discover the profound indifference of the universe to your suffering.” That’s part of it: facing the fact that in the grand scheme of things, my troubles are petty.
But it’s more than that. While I’m deep in a state of there’s-something-terribly-wrong-here, I am paralysed. I can’t make connections. I am frozen in an internal dialogue of helplessness, blame and worry. And over the years I’ve come to see that as an empty indulgence.
You have to step an awfully long way back sometimes to see that there’s nothing wrong, and sometimes I can’t get that far away. Last night I was reading about the massacres and corruption in Nigeria. I noticed a not-unfamiliar bath of hopelessness wash over me. It was tempting to fall into that and carry the resignation into bed with me. But “there’s nothing wrong here” takes me into a subtly different place. This is not acceptable to me, I say to myself. But I can’t do anything about it; it is outside my circle of influence. I do not even know what to do, what would impact this, on any level. I will keep the knowledge of it parked here in my brain, and if I figure anything out, I will take action. But there’s nothing wrong here, in this moment and this space.
This is the truth as I see it: the only way of being that is of any use in those awful moments is to approach the situation as a problem that can be solved, a wound that can be healed. The only thing that can make a difference is to hold firm to a conviction that life is good, that I can make a difference, that together we can make changes to ourselves, each other and the world. I must stay in this moment, not in some dreaded future or blameworthy past.
Last week my mother, who is 92, came down with a nasty case of septicaemia, a consequence of untreated urinary tract infection (very common in the elderly, I have discovered). She was taken off to hospital, where within an hour she was connected to a drip for rehydration and antibiotics. It was a dangerous situation. Here at my desk, twelve thousand kilometres away, I spent much of my time on Skype and in email communication with my son, my sister-in-law, the hospital nursing station, Mum’s doctor-friend, other good friends and relatives. I had my suitcase half-packed and felt in dread of the flight and its aftermath, of leaving Mitchells Island at its most beautiful in late spring, of cancelling the dozens of events on my calendar, of finding Mum unable to care for herself at home.
But I kept bringing lightness to it, talking to people, finding my sense of humour. The huge distance disappeared as people explained what was being done and worked through what needed to be done. In the end, Mum came back better than ever. I felt so well-supported. Nothing was wrong.
Because “There’s nothing wrong here” was on my mind, I took notice just now of a tiny book on Michael’s shelf, called Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 teachings, by Pema Chödrön. Here’s what Pema says:
“We [can] regard disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, jealousy, and fear as moments that show us where we’re holding back, how we’re shutting down. Such uncomfortable feelings are messages that tell us to perk up and lean into a situation when we’d rather cave in and back away.”
I like the image of “leaning into a situation”. Coming from a place of there’s-nothing-wrong-here” allows me to do that. I won’t get further damaged; I won’t cause further harm. I’ll “lean in”: get involved, see what there is to learn, garner my community. When I leaned into Mum’s illness and hospitalisation, I got perspective—and support.
Pema describes this whole approach as being willing to “stick with uncertainty”. She says that’s how we “learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears. We exercise our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment—over and over again.”
My access to that is through “There’s nothing wrong here.” I’m not sure I’d ever tattoo it on my arm, but I feel that over time I’ve tattooed it to the back of my eyelids. I reckon I’ll keep it handy there for awhile.