Making Sense: How I Learned To Embrace the Chaos

Around the time I turned 40, I went to see a therapist. My mother had recently died. My little boy had been seriously ill, and I found myself questioning everything.
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Around the time I turned 40, I went to see a therapist, a man who knew me well. I tended call him once or twice a year on an as-needed (read: crisis) basis. I had reached the point of being able to sort through most problems on my own. But life had -- as it occasionally does -- grown suddenly complicated. I had been trying with no success to have a second child. My husband and I were contemplating egg donation and surrogacy. We had made an abrupt move from New York City to rural Connecticut in the wake of 9/11. My mother had recently died. My little boy had been seriously ill, and I was still reeling from a difficult and frightening year. I found myself questioning everything.

I went through a box of tissues during that hour with my occasional therapist, and as he walked me to the door at the end of the session, I turned to him and asked urgently: does any of this make sense?

Everything about you makes sense, he said.

I found those words enormously comforting. I so badly wanted the narrative of my life to make sense. Two brief failed marriages -- one at 18 the other at 28? Makes sense. My uneasy relationship to faith and doubt, having been raised in a strict, religious home? Makes sense. The emptiness I continued to feel at the early loss of my father? Makes sense. My impossibly fraught relationship with my mother? Sense. My fear and guilt at the increasing odds that my son would be an only child just like I had been? Sense.

Our lives grow so complex, so unwieldy, so difficult to explain as we get older. Haven't we all had the experience of making a new friend in our 30s or 40s or 50s and wondering how in the world we can possibly explain ourselves? Our heartaches and our joys, our failures, losses, accomplishments, regrets? Who we've loved? Who we've wounded? What we'd do over -- if we possibly could -- if given the chance? As the trajectory of our lives stretches out from childhood well into adulthood, the arc is rarely smooth or clear. My husband, a screenwriter, is often asked to adapt biographies for film, and the struggle, he often says, is that lives have first acts, but they don't have third acts (until they're over) and second acts are just one damned thing after another. So how to understand the narratives of our lives? How to trust that everything about us makes sense?

Lately I've been wondering if perhaps the answer to this is not to even attempt to smooth things out. Sure, there are the fortunate few from whom the journey has thus far been smooth sailing, but for the vast majority of us, there are fits and starts, hiccups, confusion, mistakes, wrong turns, U-turns, graceless moments. Life's road is nothing if not strewn with pebbles, potholes, unexpected surprises, both happy and not-so-happy ones. As one of my dearest friends, the Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein says, "We are always accommodating to a new situation." That ever-changing new situation is, in fact, what makes up the shape of our lives. And that shape assumes its own kind of integrity, over time. This is how it is, how it has been. The truth of who we are is all we have to offer each other. And so often we want to edit it, to hide it, to cut and paste the story so that it will read like something intentional, something that we meant to do all along.

And so it seems that the answer may well be to embrace the complexity of our lives. A beautiful piece of Buddhist wisdom known as "The Eight Vicissitudes" goes like this: pain and pleasure, praise and blame, fame and disrepute, gain and loss. All lives contain all of these. Not at once, not in order, not in equal amounts -- but nonetheless, all lives contain all of these. I find great solace in this. We are all here, trying our best, muddling through. We make choices, we re-group, we deepen. We learn from each other. We all make sense.

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