The Wisdom to Know – Either Oars
When a problem persists against our usual repertoire of responses we really have only two choices. One is to accept the problem as beyond our control. The other is to press on in the conviction that we can solve it. Either of these two choices works best when embraced to the exclusion of the other. Half-accepting provides little relief. Half a can-do attitude usually means you can’t do, after all.
Life often beseeches us to make binary decisions, choosing one fork in the road or another, and with a problem that won’t go away, the choice is whether to continue trying to beat it, or join it, embracing and working with it.
The serenity prayer captures this well. The wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we can’t is worth praying for. But the only wisdom we get is speculative. Up front, we can’t know with any certainty whether our efforts to solve a problem will pay off. We can know success with hindsight, or at least we can know that a problem was solved, whether through our efforts or not. But if we choose to accept a problem as beyond our control, we don’t even get this satisfaction. When we stop making the effort to solve a problem and the problem persists, we never even find out whether our effort would have made a difference.
Given that foresight offers only imperfect speculative wisdom, there’s an upside and a downside to either accepting a problem or persisting against it. Accepting a problem as beyond your control frees you up to build around the problem, but may lower your expectations below what is possible. The pre-WWII German Jew having given up on stopping the Nazis, escapes, surviving to build a new life in America. But the teenager who drops out of high-school resigning himself to his learning disability after failing an exam is cutting himself too much slack. It’s attitudes like his that give defeatism a bad name.
The can do attitude likewise can be both wise and foolish. Movie heroes almost always press on against seemingly insurmountable odds, and, in the end prove right to have done so, but that’s usually a flourish of the screenwriter’s pen. What about the fool in love unrequited who spends ten years courting a woman who wants nothing to do with him? What about the talent-less actress who, citing “A star is born,” maintains a can-do attitude, when she clearly can’t and should quit and get a normal job like the rest of us. It’s attitudes like hers that give “can do” a bad name.
It would be great if we could hedge, both persisting and giving up. That’s the solution that seems most appropriate. We can do that by oscillating between the two options, trying for a while, giving up for a while. But blending the two simultaneously is a weak solution. “Build to last 100 years; be ready to leave tomorrow.” That’s what the Shakers said–an admirable but untenable attitude. “Though my heart is on fire my eyes are cold as ashes,” is a Zen saying with parallel paradox. Don’t the eyes soon cool the fire and the fire soon warm the ashes resulting in luke-warm effort? It’s hard to hold the courage to change something and the serenity to accept it at the same time. The two attitudes erode each other. As soon as you doubt you can do something, you probably can’t. As soon as you’re sure you can do something, you foreclose a graceful exit if you turn out to be wrong.
“How can I save this marriage?” is a can-do question. It implies that there is a way to save it, just waiting to be discovered. “Can I save this marriage?” is a leading question. It leads readily to letting go. Once you start to ask it, your efforts to save the marriage begin to go slack.
Recognizing that the middle ground is ineffectual, we use stories like oars to paddle ourselves to a pole at either end of the continuum between can-do and can’t. Our stories are our either-oars.
To save a marriage, tell stories of divorce as failure, incompatibilities as minor, persistence as virtue, marriage as sacred. To accept the marriage as over, tell stories of transformation as enriching, change as inevitable, divorce as liberation, persistence as flogging a dead horse.
Our either-oar stories move us across the sea of ambiguity and out toward the poles, but sometimes we change our minds. Our either-oars get shot full of holes by evidence and we carve ourselves a new pair to paddle as quickly as we can toward the opposite pole.
The estranged partner is stunned by his mate’s quick scuttle from one pole to the other. “She said she loved me forever.”
The estranging partner’s tune-change is a practical going-away gift for the one she leaves-a gift he can use to carve himself a new pair of oars to help him move toward the pole of acceptance and letting go. “Either she has lost her mind or was out of her mind during all those years she lied about her commitment.”
But really, her swift maneuver is perfectly natural. The middle ground is useless. You are either in a marriage or not in it. The faster you can make the transition from one pole to the other, the more skillfully you are acting in a world that demands all or nothing on so many fronts. When my wife left, it was shockingly sudden, but now I’m grateful. A surgical strike, a strong clear change of signals, that I could read through the fog and disorientation. I adapted more quickly because of it. In this sense too, it is a perfect going away gift. Be decisive and your dance partners move with grace.
My father died of cancer at 59. He told many stories about his disease over the 13 years that he switched between fighting and accepting his approaching death. When he died, my mother who had nursed him, kept fighting his death. She spent a year obsessing over whether there was anything more she could have done, and then discovered that she too had cancer too. She fought and accepted, fought and accepted for another year and then died, also at 59.
Their era was the height of Bernie Siegel’s cancer-cure popularity. His best-selling book, Love Medicine and Miracles instilled confidence and can-do commitment in many a cancer fighter. You do have the power to solve your problems, even cancer. It’s simply a matter of open fully to love. Committing to a positive prognosis was the key, and Siegel gave many examples to demonstrate how flawlessly this worked.
Many years later, Siegel retracted his bald assertion. A positive commitment to healing is a Faustian bargain. Up front, taking responsibility for curing yourself breeds optimism, but if your optimism doesn’t pay off in a cure, it’s your fault. Many cancer patients who subscribed to his method, died twice-defeated, once by cancer and once by their inability to open fully to love.
My dad and mom would have loved to believe with steadfast certainty that Bernie was right. Alternatively they would have loved to believe with steadfast certainty that there was nothing they could do–that their cancers were in God’s hands. But much as they tried, their conviction-impaired critical minds couldn’t maintain a grip on either pole for long. They shuttled frequently between them. Consistently looking for a steadfast story but inconsistent in their story.
My dad’s wry sense of humor lubricated the traversals. He saw himself traversing and understood the bind he was in. He was irreverent about his own shuttling between craving life and accepting death. According to my mother, the surreal morning after his positive diagnosis, he woke up, farted, paused, and muttered “cured.”
He loved paradox and lived with it more comfortably than most. He used to say “I’ll lick this cancer if it’s the last thing I do.” My mother was not as lucky. She was a sucker for a success story, so her bouts of can-do and can’t were wilder swings. She would invest wholeheartedly in hope and feel the full impact when it got dashed.
My dad ate a macrobiotic diet during his entire career as a cancer patient. He thought the promoters of the diet were nuts and said he had no confidence that it was doing anything to prolong his life. His commitment to it was, as he said, “a votive act.” The guiding principle of the diet, he joked, was to never eat food that tasted good. And that was it’s appeal, because what he really wanted was an opportunity to demonstrate his desire to live. He needed to be doing something. Sacrificing the cow and chicken and other richness in his diet was simply a gesture-a private matter between himself and his cancer and of little concern to the gods of longevity.
He also attended creative visualization workshops and learned how to meditate on his white knight-white blood cells vanquishing the dragon-like cancer cells. He meditated without fail twice a day for over 10 years, once again as gesture of commitment. He did not believe it would work. For his last eight years he did long division problems in his head, the white knight vanquished by more sustaining equations.
His is my model for traversing between poles. Like the rest of us, he was a slave to the need to choose between can-do and can’t. But unlike most of us, he knew he was a slave to it, and could laugh at his bind.
Four days before he died, mom called and told me to meet them at the hospital. There I found him having made the switch again between fighting and accepting–his belly distended taut with complications, hepatitis, infections, bad cell counts. With an arm thrown over his furrowed brow he exhaled, “I want out.”
My mother brought in one more macrobiotic specialist-someone confident in the Siegal method. Her clear diagnosis was that my father was starved for genuine loving relationships. By now he could afford defiance of the hopeful. “I’ve been eating macrobiotics for thirteen years. I’m not starved for love, I’m starved for a good meal.” I spoon-fed him Dream-cicles and Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup as his liver finally failed.
My eldest son was seven as my father was dying. He was the only grandchild my father knew, and a real terror. I’d bring him over to visit his grandparents during the months my dad was bedridden and he’d wreak extraordinary havoc. My father warned me, to confront my child’s problems. “You simply can’t let them run your life.”
Over the years after dad died, as my son’s menacing recklessness took over ever increasing amounts of my life, I realized that for all my can do attitude, I wasn’t doing, or what I was doing wouldn’t do. At night when he’d finally settle down asleep, I’d lay awake wondering why it was going so wrong.
The question grew into a clear pair of poles. One was called handicapped, the other was called lazy. If my son was handicapped and couldn’t change, I was wrong to keep pushing him to change. One doesn’t whip a blind boy to force him to see. Accept, take the problem as a given, build a healthy life around the problem.
But if his foul temper was an indulgence–laziness, a product of insufficient commitment to change, then accepting was the worst thing I could possibly do. Demand, expect, hold on, keep building and assume that he will change. You don’t indulge a budding boor.
I oscillated between accepting his handicap with compassion and fighting his laziness with a firm hand. A decisive interpretation of his persistent problems was required because the appropriate responses at either pole are diametrically opposed to each other. Push the lazy; help the handicapped. The Andrew Sisters sing, “No room for Mr. In-between.”
As my son grew older the trouble snowballed. We finally got a positive diagnosis of brain damage. A handicap after all. By then it was a dual diagnosis, including drug addiction. What an opportunity for chagrin, to think of all the times I whipped the blind boy. Forgiveness comes for me as it came to my dad. I understand the bind I was in, the bind we are all in. And even now, I oscillate. Maybe he’s ready for a treatment program. Maybe he can still make something of his life. Maybe not. Build to last; be ready to quit.
In psychology today there are strong advocates of both poles. The popular radio guru Dr. Laura is combating our cultures growing tendency to accept things as unchangeable. She’s not interested in your feelings, she’s focused on your morals and actions and thinks you can do a lot more than you’re doing. She is right. And in the mean time doctors are discovering the biological roots of depravity. My son’s case is a perfect example. Ten years ago, the neurological component of his behavioral problems would have gone undetected. Now we know it’s not moral depravity. It’s a handicap. These doctors are right.
I’ll never have the wisdom to know what I can change and what I can’t. What I’m hoping for now is the wisdom to know that I can’t know, and the compassion to know that while I can’t know, I have to act as though I do, nonetheless. There’s grace in that. Grace and a good laugh at my predicament along the way.