This time last year a friend remarked that I had just had my very own annus horribilis, a year I’d be glad to see the back of. It certainly looked that way. That previous year, I had moved out of home with my two young sons, battling the fraught maelstrom of obstacles – logistical, financial and emotional – that go with that. I wasn’t just propping myself up but two little boys who looked to me to assure them that all was well. When I wasn’t so sure it was. Then after all that, my Dad died. He’d been sick for so long – years – that it didn’t come as a shock. “This is the call you’ve been waiting for”, said my older brother that late November morning before school drop off. And it was. But, still, it hit home in the way that losing a parent inevitably does. My father – who had given life (six of them) and, as a surgeon, saved lives (countless ones) was no longer here. Impossible to get your head around.
Yet despite all this, despite the obvious evidence that I hadn’t had the best of years, I didn’t see it that way. It may not have been what I’d hoped for, it certainly wasn’t my plan-A, and it wasn’t the sort of year I’d wish on anyone else, but I was genuinely good with it. Not just because compared to far more drastic calamities, challenges and genuine tragedies other people face, it was nothing I couldn’t handle. But because it was necessary.
It was my year of destruction.
When life falls apart, the temptation – the natural inclination, even – is to run. To default to the status quo as quick as we can, avoiding pain at all costs. Yet this is the stuff that makes us. Our struggles force us to grow in ways that rollicking times never do. There’s no incentive to change when all is well. Anguish is an invitation to dig deep, learn lessons, rise up.
It’s also unavoidable. There can be no change without destruction.
“It’s like renovating a house”, says my meditation teacher, Tim Brown (which kind of touches a nerve because that’s one of the very dreams I walked away from that year). “It’s a perfectly good house but the layout is no longer working so the architect comes and draws a plan to improve things. Then in comes the demolition team and it’s mess and chaos. The mistake we make is we think these guys are bad. But it’s not wanton destruction. It’s discerning destruction. They’re just doing their job”.
If we can get through the demolition, we get the renovation. After all the mayhem, we wind up in “a new and elevated space”.
Our lives, when we think about it, constantly cycle through these phases: maintenance, destruction and creation. We can either resist it or dive into it.
In her book ‘When Things Fall Apart’ (which a friend kindly gave me when that appeared to be happening for me), Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, says we regard discomfort as “bad news”. But so called negative emotions are like “messengers” that show us where we’re stuck. “They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away”, she writes.
I take inspiration from my friend, Neen and the way she faced her own cataclysmic year of destruction. Her “white picket fence perfect life” imploded when her husband of 25 years died suddenly, leaving her broken with grief to raise their three children alone.
“It was like a nuclear bomb was dropped on my life and I thought ‘I can’t survive this’”, she says. Three years on, she can see the trauma she went through has been the making of her. “I decided I had to keep moving forward and transform myself and my life. Now I feel invincible, like I can handle anything. It’s a powerful place to be”.
“You can choose courage or you can choose comfort, but you cannot have both”, says author, Brene Brown.
I learnt much from my own year-and-a-bit of destruction, including: while support is welcome, I’m enough to carry myself and my children. Forgiveness is the key. Loneliness – the panic of not mattering to anyone – is not to be feared but is an opportunity to see what matters beyond the confines of other’s expectations. Our kids are wiser than us. Always have eggs in the fridge and icy poles in the freezer.
Now as a new year unfolds, let the renovations begin.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and on dailylife.com.au and is published here with permission.