Finding Courage When Things Fall Apart

Sometimes the best thing to do is go for a bike ride at the beach in Santa Monica. A great reminder of the wisdom to share the path with everyone, whether we agree with them or not. 

Sometimes the best thing to do is go for a bike ride at the beach in Santa Monica. A great reminder of the wisdom to share the path with everyone, whether we agree with them or not. 

A week ago today, the world we woke up to had changed.

For many people in the U.S. and internationally, the results of the presidential election were surprising and deeply shocking.

For days, people in my community of Palm Springs have walked around in a daze. Feelings are volatile, passions and positions on deeply important political issues have inflammed a normally relatively peaceful community.

As in the rest of the world, people are waking up and asking, “What happened?”

For many, the results are a sign that all the efforts that have been made in terms of progress over human rights, social justice, women’s equality and other issues in the recent history of the nation are a chimera. That things have, definitively and unequivocally, fallen apart.

Years ago, when facing a person crisis of my own, I happened upon a little book called, aptly, “When Things Fall Apart.” I grabbed it eagerly hoping to find out how to put it all back together again and that this book would tell me how.

Instead, what I found was something so radical it changed my life.

Those events and people in our lives who trigger our unresolved issues could be regarded as good news,”  I read instead.

This was not what I wanted to read.

What I wanted to know was how to go back, back to how things used to be.

Before the job ended.

Before the health crisis.

Before the relationship was over.

Instead, Pema Chodrun’s little book told me this falling apart was all good news and rather than rushing to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, that it would be wiser to practice letting go when things fall apart, rather than clinging to the past or what was.

But if you aren’t a Buddhist nun with thousands of hours and years even on silent meditation retreats like Pema, how can this teaching make your life better and, especially, how can you make it practical?

There are at least two ways that are especially helpful:

First, give up ever going backwards.

The sooner you accept what is, and let go, the sooner you will be able to respond more skillfully to what is here in the present moment.

Take the time you need to lick your wounds and to engage in self-reflection about the meaning of the triggering event to you personally and in the broader context of your values in the world. But then, move on to what you can do right now.

Now that things have already fallen apart.

If your car gets stuck in the mud, for example, you don’t sit there for hours hitting the steering wheel, enraged that this has happened (ok, maybe you do it for a few minutes but then you eventually get it together because you have an appointment to get to or the ice cream from the grocery store is melting in the back seat).

You accept what has happened for the moment, and from that place, take skillful action. Like calling your husband or the auto club.

Second, when the event is especially emotionally painful, like a breakup or a job loss or an election whose results cause you to experience fear because your values and even personhood are so deeply threatened, it is extremely helpful to imagine yourself in the other guys’ shoes.

This is tough in the beginning. But it is so worth it.

In your meditation practice, you can imagine you are the boss that fired you, the ex that left you, the protester from the opposing political camp who lives, breathes and loves his family, too.

(And if you don’t have a meditation practice yet, perhaps this will motivate you to start one).

Imagine what it is really like to live in this person’s skin. What their worries, hopes, fears and dreams are. What hurts them and where they suffer.

This will take practice, to be sure.

Our reach of empathy is always where we are most threatened after all.

Many people find it very easy to be compassionate towards starving children in Africa, for example,  or with hospice patients. It can be much harder for us to generate that same compassion to people who threaten us more viscerally - our values, our desires, our beliefs, our status, our money, our self-identity and even our personal bodily welfare.

What can come from these times when things do fall apart is that we reflect more deeply on our values, and what we are doing to live them and honor them. We can spend some time really diving deep to ask if we are genuinely sharing the path with others - others who are quite different from ourselves in sometimes the most off-putting ways -  as we would want them to share it with us.

Fierce authentic courage is required for all of this.

And when things fall apart and you don’t put them back together the way they were, you find the fierce authentic courage to live the life of your hopes and dreams.

No matter what.