We usually think of a personal breakthrough as a realization, or a new idea, that all at once changes the way we see things. I’d like to tell you about a more gradual kind of breakthrough – a personal process that slowly but dramatically changed the way I experience my life.
Like so many others in the modern world, I spent most of my adult life preparing for the future. But the future I anticipated never really came, because by the time my plans actually worked out I was so busy planning the next stage of my life that I barely had time or energy to appreciate the fruits of my labors.
Then, just after my daughter Timora turned twelve, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Suddenly, there was no way we could predict what would happen the next day, let alone the coming weeks, months, or even years, and so planning became nearly impossible. Daily tasks like cooking and shopping gave way to scheduled and unscheduled visits to the doctor. Weekly schedules became subject to the possibility of sudden hospitalizations. And longer term? Well, with almost no notice I could lose my daughter. How could I possibly prepare for that?
I coped by developing a new skill – I learned to live in the present. I cultivated what I now recognize as mindfulness – attentiveness to whatever was happening in the present moment. I didn’t stop all planning, of course, but I directed most of my thoughts to the here and now. Most of the time I left the future to God, in whose hands it rested anyway.
This new (for me) way of being turned out to be a true blessing. Paradoxically, as I let go of the idea that I actually had the power to determine the course of my future, I also let go of a great deal of anxiety – and found myself better able to experience my life more fully as it unfolded. Also, realizing the extent to which nothing in this world is truly permanent made me stop taking the many good things in my world for granted, and appreciate them more deeply.
Especially people. Although I’d always been happiest spending time with those I love, I began to cherish more than ever my moments with them. I also found myself able to give them more of myself than I had before I understood just how fragile our lives really are.
Having learned to live in the present stood me in good stead when the worst finally happened, and Timora died after a six-year struggle. Losing her brought into the sharpest possible focus just how important my surviving loved ones are to me.
I’ve written a memoir called And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, which recalls – among other things – my personal, philosophical, and spiritual journey over almost sixteen years, beginning when Timora’s first symptoms appeared. One of the themes I explore there is the one I’m discussing here:
“When I can say, ‘I’ve done whatever I can for now,’ and at the same time manage to acknowledge the limits of my own power and give my fears and anxieties up to God, I come closer to becoming both whole within myself, and wholly with the other people in my life.”
Our family survived the tsunami of Timora’s illness and death not only intact, but closer than ever. And while I will always carry with me the grief of a bereaved mother, I know that my newfound mindfulness significantly contributed to my resilience – and, ultimately, to that of the rest of my family.