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My life was staring back at me in all its glory.
I stood up to look at the many photos scattered all over the floor of the room where I was working. I had to pause and step away in order to understand the feelings they provoked.
In a continuous effort over the last several years to clean out and declutter my life, last weekend I finally got to one of the boxes of photographs.
My daughters’ annual class photos, pictures taken during birthday parties and anniversaries where everyone was all dressed up and extra smiley, vacations, events, and a progression of passport photos showing the physical changes over the years…
Feelings and thoughts flashed in rapid succession:
How young and beautiful we were! But did we know it? Did I ever stop to acknowledge that I was young and beautiful and healthy and just revel in that moment in acceptance, joy, gratitude, and awe? Of course not.
Like most women, I was never satisfied with myself or my body, always wishing at least one part of it looked like someone else’s, or secretly worrying that some scary yet unmanifested disease was lurking in my body unbeknownst to me.
How incredibly sweet the girls were! Yes, I did know that. I loved them fiercely. But how much time was spent in trying to reign in their spontaneity, in punishing their childish outbursts, in poisonous worry that they do not measure up to their peers, in blinding anxiety that something may go wrong when they were called to explore some of their souls’ wild desires?
Those were the happy years! But did we feel it? Did we take the time to understand how lucky we were? Did we ever pause to acknowledge the many blessings in our life as we rushed through it, trying to tick the marks on our list of what a successful life should contain, always striving for more, never stopping to realize how much we had already?
But the most overwhelming feeling was the realization: that life is over.
My children have grown and the eldest is already out of the house. That huge chunk of life—decades filled with events and experiences—is now compressed into a pile of photos on the floor, never to be lived again.
I wish I would have lived it slower.
These pictures, taken before the age of Instagram, are what we call today “the highlight reel.” As such, they perhaps do not transmit the actual complexity of my life. But those happy events and the feelings these pictures captured, seen together like that, make all too obvious the many blessings I have had. So many blessings, in fact, that I should have spent my days in a constant and continuous state of gratitude, in kneeling and humbled wonderment at all the miracles and the magnificence of the experience.
Unfortunately, that is not at all how I have lived.
The fact that our time here is limited creates in us paradoxical reactions. From childhood, we are taught that time is precious, so, to avoid “wasting” it, we tightly cram too many activities into our every day. Unexpectedly unplanned pockets of doing “nothing” produce panic and guilt. As a result, we run from today, as we dream about tomorrow, setting goals and intentions for our future—while our present, which is the only thing we actually have, quickly passes us by.
No one knows or truly can predict the future, but our discomfort with the unknown compels us to zealously plan for it, filling our tomorrow with projected illusions, which then make us suffer when actual life does not go according to plan.
When life does miraculously unfold according to our wishes without a glitch, we get used to that and start taking it for granted. We start living with a sense of entitlement and in righteous indignation any time our experience becomes even slightly less than perfect. This victimized position that the world owes us something contributes to feelings of being cheated that, in turn, can create intense misery and rage.
Unconsciously, we end up living our lives focused on struggle instead of gratitude.
In this way, despite all the many things that were wonderful, I lived my life with the sense that it was difficult. “Difficult” is how I was raised to think of life.
“Difficult” and often “horrible” is how life was experienced for many generations in the family in which I grew up: one grandmother was orphaned as a child during the Russian Revolution, losing everything; another grandmother went through unimaginable losses during the Holocaust. I heard stories of life under Stalin—prisons and all the fear, pain, and suffering they brought until my own parents “lost it all” when they decided to emigrate and give my sister and me a chance to change life’s flavor.
We carry our family’s experiences in our genes.
No matter how different our own lives are from those of our parents, we carry the emotional and energetic residue of their issues. We are born into cultures, religions, and belief systems that our family teaches us, shaping our outlook on life. They transfer their fears, frustrations, and inadequacies, their ambitions and dreams, as we learn to perceive our own life from a kind of distorted lens. Our relationship with life becomes contaminated by the past, making it difficult to form our own fresh take on it and preventing us from being guided by our own opinions, desires, and natural tendencies.
For example, when our parents did not get the attachment they needed from their primary caregivers in childhood—having lost their own parents to war or illness, having experienced neglect or abandonment—they are unable to pass secure attachment down to their children, causing a cascade of attachment dysfunction.
We do not know how to give what we did not get. This is why depression and anxiety run in families, especially families that have a hard time with secure attachment.
Most of us tend to blame our parents, which evolves into blaming other people with whom we engage in relationships later in life. A lot of our unhappiness stems from our unrealistic expectations of other people’s roles in our lives: what we get instead of what we feel we should be getting. This then forms our self-concept and self-esteem, as we spend the rest of our lives trying to prove to others and ourselves that we are worthy of the love we feel we haven’t gotten, by competing with others, trying to be “the best.”
Fear of survival, embedded in all of us, is also passed on from our parents.
It’s activated from childhood, when we learn that if we don’t get good enough grades in school we won’t be able to survive because we won’t get a good enough job one day. When we do have a job, we worry that if we don’t put in enough hours and don’t perform beyond expectations we will not get enough money and we will not survive. We then spend most of our waking hours working, trying to secure our future, which we are unable to notice and appreciate when it comes in the form of today.
Many of our worries about survival stem from family anxiety about money, steeped in feelings of lack and fears of “not enough.”
From personal experience and extensive research, I have become aware that people’s worries about money and financial insecurity often have little to do with their actual financial worth. Anxiety is omnipresent today and often plagues pockets of our society where it does not correlate with our actual living conditions. Moreover, many of our children are now haunted by anxiety and compulsive disorders that could hardly be a reflection of their own safe and abundant physical reality.
These collections of old fears and paranoias become the invisible strings that push and pull us like marionettes throughout our lives, while we spend our most productive years stuck in a rat race, striving for more, regardless of how much we already have, and hoping to one day achieve a moment of satiety that will never come.
We spend our whole lives worrying about the future we dream of, because we are unable to notice and appreciate today.
This is the consequent outcome of not being mindful of the present moment, while we live in our head rather than in the now, unable to enjoy all that we already have and all that we already are.
As I learn to pause and slow down before the rest of my life speeds by unnoticed, I try to review the lessons I have received through my family’s stories. In our attempt to control the unbearable impermanence of life and gain illusive sense of security, we try to find safety in money, while we anchor our lives in a multitude of physical possessions. And yet, to quote Osho, “that which can be taken is not yours,” as my family’s history has shown throughout many generations.
True abundance comes from human connection, as we learn to live from trust and not fear.
Survival is assured through feelings of empathy and love which compel us to open our hearts and homes to others in times of need, sharing our resources out of compassion and sense of common humanity.
When we understand the reasons that compel us to flee the present moment, face our fears, heal our traumas, decondition from habitual anxiety, we’ll be able to live life in the now more fully, meaningfully, and dynamically, deriving all the many joys from each moment that we now overlook.
Life requires that we find a balance between living for now and planning for tomorrow. Strategizing and devoting our energy toward change is vital for our future. But nothing is ever promised, including tomorrow—we should not compromise too much of today for it.
“…Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver