Beyond Mental Health 101: Things End
This article is part of a series on going deeper into mental health and wellness.
I’m going to tell you a thing about life that we all pretend never happens: everything ends.
Every relationship you will ever have will end–most of them before you die. You will leave every job you’ve ever had. Everything you own will be eventually passed to a new owner. Living things die, structures crumble, governments change.
One of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism is that suffering arises when we are either grasping (wanting things to stay the same) or avoiding (trying to keep bad things from happening). When I stop to notice, I am amazed at how much of the human experience is caught up in doing one of those two activities.
I sometimes wonder how our lives would be different if we could see the world as it is: ever changing. Rather than seeing the changes in our lives as failures, what if we could see them as natural ebb? The tide comes in and out, and the things in our lives do, too.
I think this particularly matters when thinking about the end of a relationship. Be it a friendship that has grown difficult, a romantic pairing that won’t work out, or even the arising knowledge that a person we met didn’t take a shine to us, we can approach these situations with a degree of easefulness if we remember that they are the nature of life.
Maybe I should just speak for myself. I know that when I find a relationship struggling, or even changing from one form to another, I experience a sense of rising panic. Things are changing. I may experience loss. I begin to question my worth–if I was more worthy of love and belonging, wouldn’t I be able to avoid this experience? I know I’ve engaged in what Brene Brown calls “the hustle:”
If we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and have to hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving.
Brené Brown – Hustle for Worthiness
I am guilty of working like a carnie huckster to keep the relationship from changing or ending. If I just X enough, maybe I can keep all the Bad Things from happening.
Naturally, this avoiding and grasping doesn’t save me from endings. All these behaviors do is create suffering. The cycle of doubt, blame, resentment and shame is only fed by my endless “work” of hustling.
I think what we’re all trying so hard to avoid, at the very core of our beings, is grief. As a culture (or maybe as a species) we’ve decided that grief is the worst of the emotions, and to avoid them we must engage with anything else we can. We must work tirelessly to avoid loss and pain, because loss and pain are so bad that we–what? Cannot survive them? We may literally die if we lean into our grief? My argument (well not mine, but the experts) is that avoidance of feelings and living in shame is ironically what can cause things like suicide and substance abuse and other destructive tendencies. Feeling pain as it happens could be more of a cure than a cause.
Is grief really so bad that we’d create our own suffering to avoid it? We’d willingly engage in the shaming and blaming of ourselves and our loved ones? Honestly, when I stop and consider all the crazy shit I’ve done to avoid pain I feel sort of silly. I mean. It’s just pain. Pain is survivable. All things change after all, and pain does too. Even the really big kind. Ask me now how I feel about my first marriage, then go back in time 15 years and ask me then. Trust me–it’s different. Also, it isn’t like I don’t feel pain anyway. I mean, I’ve hustled my whole life only to find that pain comes no matter what I do. Pain is a part of life whether I want it to be or not. Why on earth am I working so hard to avoid it?
If we can just let go of the grasping need to keep it all the same, or keep it all Good, maybe we can live our lives with more peace. Not more happiness–pain happens either way–but more peace.
Approaching life without grasping at it is a difficult and deep practice. We have to use our mindfulness skills and discipline. We have to come at our own reactions from a place of belief that we are worthy. There’s no proof; we must simply believe it anyway. Maybe remembering that the nature of life includes endings will help us on that path.