Four years ago, I went through a painful divorce. My partner of 18 years and I had come to an impasse--his alcoholism, my own attachment to drinking and to denial, his affair with a student, my love of work and time spent developing community. As we hashed it out (fought, reconciled, twisted the knife deeper), I found Pema Chödrön, an American nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
It had been a long time since I had come across a spiritual teacher who could surprise me, startle me into a new way of perceiving. Abandon hope, she wrote. To hope is to have expectations for an outcome, and when you imagine an outcome, you will make up stories about what is happening in order to get all the involved characters (if only they would obey the narrative arc) to the world you wish to be happening. That's as good a definition of denial as any I've seen.
But abandon hope, and then you can show up for what is happening. You can encounter the facts. You can name the feelings that arise. You can inform your decisions not by your desire to stay in relationship with a person you've loved for 18 years, but by a willingness to let life occur, to let change unfold with all the pain that might bring.
I was not raised Buddhist, but rather Christian, and hope resides at the heart of Christianity. Growing up, I often received a watered down version: suffer now in hopes of a better world to come. But I have heard a richer, more complicated definition: the world has, in fact, been restored by the death and resurrection of Christ, and humanity, though still in a broken state, can entrust itself to that perfected reality. It exists and permeates this one, even as it can't be realized here and now.
I suppose there are ways in which that definition of hope can develop a similar approach to experience as Chödrön's charge to abandon it. But for me, the Christian approach has always entailed striving. There is another reality, a better one, that I could inhabit if only... And as soon as my imagination encounters "if only" (because I am a writer), I begin to sharpen the features of that other reality, give it dimension and concreteness, and having envisioned that world, I begin to narrate how to get us all there. This version of hope conjures momentum and purpose. Quite the opposite of Chödrön's concept of abandonment, which conjures empty palms, someone walking backwards and away, torn.
A Christian might respond that I have misunderstood, that my narration usurps God's role. We weren't created to be creators, but to name that which unfolds within creation, an activity with its source and end in God alone. And I do think what I am writing towards here is a distinction between narration and naming. For me, however, the Buddhist concept of active acceptance—encounter the facts, attend to your feelings, drop the desire to project yourself elsewhere—when not confused with passive resignation gets me closer to naming than Christianity has.
I don't know that this is a flaw within Christianity. I was also raised a reader, and I took reading very seriously. Growing up, some of my favorite books were bio picks: Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman, Madame Curie—women presented to me as singular heroes, individuals with the courage to change the world, to save it. I wanted so desperately to share in that courage, an attribute I conflated with the outcomes narrated to me, as if to wield courage automatically ensured the improved world. The novels I was drawn toward reinforced this lesson. Jane Eyre was the first adult book I ordered through Scholastic News as an eleven-year-old. Adult meant lots of pages, small print, and scope. I could see by the end of my 500-page romp how the events of a life, both hard and wonderful, could be knit into a web of meaning. Events gained perspective in relationship to each other. If Jane hadn't saved the world, she had saved herself and finally Mr. Rochester. There was an end to things, a telos; order shored itself up against its beacon. The inchoate became solid, dependable, ground to stand on. Later, as a feminist, I would resist certain myths of romance embodied in Bronte's tale, but I never thought to resist the myth of solid ground, in large part because all the books I was reading reinforced it.
I have read composition scholars who point out the contingency of this ground. We can value narration because it provides a place to rest, dependable for the moment, a framework that one can enjoy before venturing out into the buzzing, blooming disparateness of experience. I have been, in the past, persuaded by this and, in fact, have written to provide a kind of closure that offers meaning without reducing experience to platitudes and happy endings, one that creates paths for readers to wander beyond the edge of the story while giving them stamina for the journey. I don't think Jane Eyre did that for me. It provided something more dangerous—a story that I wanted to shape my life to. But what if true danger lies in the very shape of story itself? What if, having known the comfort of solid ground imaginatively, I now seek to insert those ends in the very flow of life itself?
I don't mean to pose nihilism, or even postmodernism, as the alternative to the myth of solid ground. I suppose I am seeking a shift in latitude, not just a trip to the opposing pole, the way feminist scholars learned to turn their attention away from the heroine to the woman in the attic. If I turn my attention, as a writer—who, in fact, does write in order to help herself and others live more fully—if I turn my attention away from the lovely comfort of narration, to what am I turning it?
To Chödrön's charge: abandon hope; accept groundlessness; get yourself a pair of sea legs.
Where is writing's role in this?
Some days I have thought to answer this question thus: there is no role. Writing itself must be abandoned. The act of translating life to the page or the screen cannot help but fabricate ground on which to stand. But my own instinct to not just live but to reflect on living, to see reflection even as a form of living, have rendered this answer untenable.
I struggle, then, to formulate a new role for writing, one that enables me to abandon hope, to name experience as it is, to enter that experience more deeply. I seek the richness of that experience in order to find the value within it rather than a value it might accumulate in an outcome projected by any narrative I might spin. I write to wait and see which choices unfold when I do not seek ground, when I drop the need for reassurance that the events of my life will have a place in the grand scheme of things, when I try out, instead, these sea legs.
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