This article first appeared on Positivepsychologynews.com
It’s been a while since I’ve felt the pressure to rethink my life and re-craft my old and set ways. This month though, I am consciously setting new goals. I use the word consciously rather cautiously. If reason is “slave to passions” as Hume famously said, then the more I think of my reasoned decision, the more I can see the silent drivers of emotion egging me on.
Perhaps that is not necessarily a bad thing. We know that decisions cannot be made without emotion. Yet, while that emotion was still in the making, unnamed, a mere stirring in my heart, it kept the decision on the back burner and gave me much unease. Lately though I have been able to hear it and understand it. It is a yearning for grace that runs through me. I know where it comes from…
The Allure of Grace
I grew up doing ballet. It was my father’s desire not to make me a ballerina, but to instill in me a grace that made me stand tall, yet bend flexibly. That grace imbued my life for many years, but then silently, unknowingly, it bid adieu when I was least aware.
I believe that we all have a yearning for grace. We marvel at people who possess that special something. We listen intently to those whose poise is echoed in the natural flow of their words. We look long at those who exude beauty in the way they hold up their heads and carry their weight. We admire their lack of stiff self-consciousness and long for that sparkle in their eyes that comes from a lightness of the soul.
What is so alluring about it? Is it a step on the ladder towards self-transcendence that we desire? Is it the awe of the beautiful and the sublime that stirs our soul? Or is a human need to rise above our animalistic selves and somehow feel divine?
Where Did My Grace Go?
It has been twelve long years since that sense of grace left me. Twelve years since the age of my oldest hit double digits and my life transformed from the blissful years of mommy hugs, romps in the park, and baking cookies together on Sunday mornings to the perpetual struggles of moods and attitudes.
Pre-teens are the new teens. Dan Siegal has confirmed that adolescence, the years of rebellion, have stretched far beyond what nature ever intended. We parents are paying the price. We endure the constant rolling of eyes, the snide comments, the outright defiance. It is more than any human was evolved to handle alone.
Imagine then, an onslaught from four such persons simultaneously and continually. It results in a lot of needless arguments, non-stop rumination, and ensuing guilt. In essence, it results in a loss of grace. That is the loss that I lament.
This insight has given me the impetus to set new resolutions. Now my resolution is not graceful in itself. In fact, it sounds rather bizarre. But it is what I hope will follow that makes me simultaneously calm and excited. I have decided to build a mud-room in my mind. Yes, I can see your confusion, but hear me out and it will begin to make more sense.
For those of us living in cold climates, we know how useful a mudroom can be. It is a place to put on or take off dirty boots when the weather is bad outside. It keeps the rest of the house clean and undisrupted.
Would it not be wonderful to have a similar place in our minds, a space to handle the emotions that others toss at us so that we don’t lose our own balance?
It is tempting to sometimes think of sailing through life without the burden of others’ opinions, behaviors, and reactions. Jean Paul Sartre was perhaps onto something when he said “Hell is other people.” Yet, no man is an island and we languish without others in our lives. I am grateful for the meaning that motherhood brings, for the joy that my children’s presence entails, for their infectious laughter, and the rare surprise hug that seems to flow from tender love.
Perhaps I can be happy to accept negativity as an essential and even beneficial part of existence if I can create the mental space to work with it and thus preserve my own sanity.
In Praise of Psychological Flexibility
A mud-room can provide me with the space to shift gears. I can visualize taking off the negative emotions that burden me and putting on the comfortable thoughts that allow me to step into the warm and relaxed mental space that is the guardian of my life-story. After all, life is impossible and ineffective without its share of negative emotions, but it is the sticky tendrils of the negativity bias that are often our downfall.
Todd Kashdan speaks about psychological flexibility, the ability to move between emotional states, as a key marker of mental health. This means not obsessing over why my children said such and such, not ruminating about the consequences of their attitudes, nor losing sleep over the apparent destruction of our relationships. It means being able to recognize the felt emotion, express it in an appropriate manner if need be, and then move on. My mud-room will give me the freedom to move beyond suppressed emotions and into a world that sees my children with eyes of wonder and amazement
I am, after all, a mother. I have motherly instincts and dreams. I feel good when I shower love and compassion. All too often though, these emotions get smothered under the challenges of daily chaos. What ensues is a reactionary state that is in contradiction to who I am and what I want for my children. This very incoherence becomes the greatest source of maternal guilt.
Jonathan Haidt talks about inner harmony that gives rise to meaning when we can find cohesion between the many trillions of cells that operate on numerous levels in multiple domains of our lives. If I have the mental space to shed the momentary chaos and reconnect my instincts with my dreams, I will be able to re-enter life’s journey with purpose, strength, and grace every time I get thrown off by yet another unexpected meltdown.
I realize now, that the peace I demand of my kids has to come from within me. I need an acceptance of what is rather than a need to control all. A mudroom will be my place of equanimity, of returning to neutral, of shifting gears so I can provide the non-judgmental discipline and unconditional love I strive for. For it is in living with my values and in line with my dreams that I can reclaim the grace that I so desire.