NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Opportunity” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Opportunity: Arriving and becoming
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
The writer Stephen Levine, who has devoted much of his career to working with dying people, asks, “How soon will we accept this opportunity to be fully alive before we die?”
Seeing life as a series of opportunities, even at its most challenging, is the key to resilience. And resilience, the ability to bounce back from misfortune, is a key to becoming fully alive.
The most significant shift in understanding I see people make as they traverse the path from victim to victor is when they recognize that the cards we are dealt are merely the cards we are dealt. We can never undo what has been done, and sometimes we can’t do anything about what is to come. (As the popular bumper sticker bitingly puts it, “Sh*t happens.”) But we can always play our particular hand the best way we know how.
When misfortune happens, at first it is as if we are struck in the heart with an arrow. Sometimes, with our regrets, our shame, our anger, our sorrow, we take the arrow by the shaft and push it in deeper than it has already gone. The pain of the arrow is inevitable, but the suffering we add, through mental torment and dysfunctional patterns, is not. We do not have to push the arrow in. We can remove it, and we can ease the pain. Rather than succumb to the momentum of misfortune, we can change our direction. Sometimes we can turn on a dime.
It is the natural impulse of living things to actualize their potential. They can be thwarted in their self-actualization, but once the barriers to growth are removed, actualization naturally continues. A flower denied the right mix of soil, nutrients, water, and light, even if just barely alive, will thrive when given the right environment and attention.
Flowers can’t transplant themselves and they can’t ask for the right attention. But we can.
We are here now. Whatever is behind us is just what was. We can pause in this place – wherever this place is – long enough to get our bearings, and then we can move in a direction that, if we can allow ourselves to open fully to it, is miraculous.
As a little boy, I was eager to love and be loved, but I languished in an emotional basement, self-protected, for many years. As an adult, I have also had long-standing yearnings and have struggled to achieve them. I have longed for a family since I was 18. I have dealt with major health problems for half my life. For decades, I have striven to find work that is both emotionally and financially rewarding. For 40 years I have grappled with my identity as an artist, as well as with the mostly indifferent reception in the larger world that many of us in the arts experience. And since childhood, perhaps as early as my first days of Hebrew school, I have been bedeviled by the mysteries of origin, consciousness, and eternity, which even a near-death experience did not significantly clarify.
For many years, I experienced my difficulties as if they were misfortunes I was somehow cursed with, thwarted by bad luck or my own inadequacies. My heart was burdened with regrets, my mind driven by an urgency to find my way through the labyrinth. A resilient response was hit-or-miss. Now, although I still have my share of real-world and emotional issues, I tend to see obstacles as the opportunities for growth they nearly always present, and regard changes in fortune as transitions: I was on that path, then; now, I am on this one. What is happening here? Although there is still pain and there is still suffering, there is also, always, something more.
As Miguel de Cervantes put it hundreds of years ago, when one door closes, another opens. Sometimes that opening is apparent, as when one finally lets go of an old relationship or an unsatisfying job and a more viable one appears. At other times, the opening door is concealed. But I have come to know that even when the new door is not visible, it is still there, just as the figure of David was there in Michelangelo’s block of marble, waiting to be unveiled.