We commit when we see our situation in context and when, seeing all the treasures and terrors life promises, we embrace the whole of it.
Easy to say, but gaining such clarity can be a challenge. For decades I resisted the simple act of acceptance, and for decades I endured needless torment. Part of me knew my own attitudes rooted me in my suffering, but it seemed impossible to change my patterns.
Looking back on those struggles from my current perspective, it’s not clear what made the difference. Why did I finally transform? Partly, it was the guidance of a wise counselor trained in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Partly, it took spiritual practice which, for me, meant dabbling in Buddhism, Vedanta, Yoga, Quakerism, Catholicism, Taoism, and so on. Simple aging also played a role. I gave up my youthful dreams, or at least the ones that demanded release, in favor of wiser, quieter intentions.
From my own experience and that of others, I’ve come to believe the decision to try suffices. If we choose to pursue health, even when we have only vague notions about what health truly means, we eventually find it. Resources appear (or we begin to notice them). Fellow seekers enter our lives (or we find them). We gradually blaze a path through the shadows and discover light.
So if the key is making a choice and committing to growth, perhaps we can find some guidance by looking at another type of commitment: marriage.
My wife and I have lived together for twenty-three years, and have been married eighteen. A man my age can’t claim this to be a particularly long time, but it’s enough for me to have learned something about the wedded state. Lately I’ve been looking at the ways committing to life and committing to a spouse seem similar.
In marriage, there are moments of bliss. The wedding day. The tender, intimate cuddling. The mind-blowing copulations. These ecstatic times serve to strengthen the bond between partners. They are analogous to peak moments, those times when we feel the grandeur of being alive. I think here of potent transcendent experiences, such as I recently experienced during a meditation retreat (read this piece for a description).
In marriage and in life, there are also milder flavors of bliss: the shared meals and quiet walks, or the lovely sunsets and the enthusiasm of dogs. These subtler highlights are more numerous and play an equal role in binding us to lovers and life itself.
Of course, there are hard times, too. Married couples disappoint one another, hurt one another, and sometimes even betray one another. Likewise, life serves up loss, illness, and ruin. Some marriages are more troubled than others. Some lives are more arduous, some less.
A partner can let us down by forgetting an important anniversary, by never looking up from the computer, by speaking cruelly, or by choosing the arms of another. There’s a spectrum of severity. Longstanding marriages survive not because lapses don’t occur, or even because the lapses remain small. They survive because of forgiveness and, most of all, because of commitment. Sure, divorce is an option. But if the partners honor their vows, they work things out. Even great wounds have been healed in this way.
Life disappoints us when we have to wait a long time at a red light while feeling rushed, when we lose the career to which we devoted our youth, when we contract a painful, disabling illness, and when those closest to us die. All of us confront a range of adversity that spreads from mild irritation to devastating grief. Given this, how do we remain appreciative of life? By committing to the journey.
We can and do reject life. Some commit suicide, of course, but many more get lost in substance abuse, obsessive thought, empty entertainments, and sullen refusal to enjoy whatever blessings fate does provide. For instance, we might find ourselves in a town we don’t like, separated from the city we adored. Rather than noticing the peaceful beauty of the new location, we mourn the excitement of the old. We keep ourselves locked in regret, wishing things were different.
We criticize continually, when we could just as easily praise. We reject when we could embrace.
What keeps us trapped in misery? Go back to the marriage analogy. One can divorce, but one can also withdraw. A couple can live together and interact only in the most superficial or (worse) hurtful ways. Each withholds affection and admiration from the other. The marriage continues, but its heart withers.
Only when the couple learns to fully commit to the process of marriage does the relationship blossom to its full, miraculous extent. With total commitment, small annoyances seem humorous and big failures seem forgivable. We cease trying to change our partners and instead honor them for who they are. We see them as startling wholes, at once heroic and fallible.
We can do the same with life. A recurring theme in my writing has been how we do well to expand our perspective. We can see the hardship life inflicts alongside the pleasure it provides. We can see evil alongside good. Decay next to growth. Death balanced by birth. We admire the drama of evolution playing out over millions of years and the turmoil of human culture unfolding over thousands. We open to the big picture and we become less sure of our opinions. Are we really qualified to criticize this ancient, chaotic, self-correcting whole? We begin to wonder, in both senses of the word. We wonder if our judgments are reliable. We wonder at the complexity and beauty of this surging process we call a universe.
To commit to wonder is all it takes. To remain curious, appreciative, and open-minded is to remain married, whether to another person or an entire cosmos. The longer one engages in a committed fashion, the easier and more remarkable such marriage seems.
We don’t need to feel alone when we are married to life. We have a partner who will remain with us to our last moment, without fail. We can watch it with fascination and affection. We can embrace it with tenderness and care, and occasionally with passion and ecstasy.
What does this mean, in practice? It means tending the body, mind, heart, and soul. Not just our own aggregation of these properties, but that of our partner which, if our partner is life itself, means caring for the people and organisms all around us and the biosphere itself. We commit to doing our best to treat others and ourselves with gentleness when possible and firmness when necessary. We recognize that we will fail, as all fails, from time to time, but we commit to forgiving ourselves and everything else for not living up to our expectations. We begin to accept the world and all it contains as a startling whole. We no longer wish this universe were different; we admire what it is.
At which point, we realize life always knew best. As if reconciling with a spouse who made the right choice despite our vigorous objection, we admit that the cosmos was wiser all along.
Was that career really right for us? Did the old neighborhood provide the resources needed for personal growth? Do we really know what’s best? We begin to wonder. And in wonder, we find love.
And it all begins with a choice: the choice to commit wholeheartedly to living, come what may.