We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
– Pema Chodron
For me, this quote is WISDOM. All capital letters. It is one of the foundational life Truths that I think everyone needs to know. It is something I still have to remind myself of most of the time. I have lived decades believing that there is a way to make life stop falling apart.
For years, I was under the very strong impression that life falling apart is a problem. That things happening not the way I want them to is a problem. And that there is a solution to this problem. I assumed that once I cracked the code and arrived at the solution, life would suddenly never fall apart again and would remain in a perpetual state of coming together.
I often hear this articulated as, “Once I _____ (lose the weight/get married/make a million dollars/move out of my parents’ home), life will finally get good.” For me, I assumed that once I cracked the code I would get to feel confident all the time and everyone would be impressed by me and I would know how to put together beautiful outfits and do my hair and life would be the way I want it to be. I searched for the code that would transport me to this nirvana. Initially I thought it was getting my PhD. But no, life was not all butterflies and unicorns once people started calling me “Doctor.” Then it was getting married. Nope. Becoming a parent? Life is more magical for sure, but has it become smoother sailing? NO.
I am still waiting to feel effortlessly confident and beautifully styled. In the meantime, it started dawning on me that life may not actually work that way. There may not be a point at which I suddenly Have It All Figured Out and the golden path unfurls before me. As Pema points out, life can never be all golden paths: it is the nature of life to ebb and flow. To try to stop this cycle is as futile as trying to stop the waves from rushing onto the beach.
This Truth brings enormous relief. I believed that I should be able to stop that ebb and flow. I didn’t realize that this is not actually in my control (ah, control, old friend). This Truth reminds me to stop trying to achieve the impossible. There is no code to be cracked. There is no problem to be solved. The falling apart will happen, just as the coming together will happen. They are both – equally – life.
As a perfectionist, I am constantly drawn to the impossible. Once I realized that I am not supposed to be able to make life always Go to Plan, I could start to put down the 53-ton burden I had been needlessly carrying around. Once I realized that I am not supposed to be able to stop sad events from being sad, or things not going to plan sometimes, or awkward moments (recent example: spilling my chai latte down my blouse during my first patient of the day), I became less defensive of the feelings that come up in those moments.
Being less defensive of feelings makes it easier to have them. If we don’t expect that we shouldn’t feel pain, we don’t immediately rush to push it away. We can be curious about it, or at least let it be there while we focus on something else. We can more easily make room for all of the emotions that show up as life does its falling-apart-and-coming-together thing.
Anyone working on self-compassion will benefit from a reminder that life will do its thing. There is nothing that you can do or be or achieve that will make your life bulletproof. Life will fall apart. You can’t stop that any more than I can. Self-compassion, being with yourself lovingly, can make the fall-apart moments less sharp and cutting. If life is going to fall apart, at least we can be kind to ourselves about it. That only seems fair.
For the people who say they don’t “deserve” self-compassion, this is for you. You do not get to point to your ebbs as “evidence” that you are unworthy of compassion. Even if you were the most “deserving” person in the world, your life would have ebbs. Ebbs, things not going your way, pain. It is a part of life for everyone. We can agree on that at this point, right? Everyone has ebbs, and no one is in full control of how or when those ebbs show up.
Whatever it is about you that makes you (in your eyes) not deserving of self-compassion, that’s an ebb. Life decided to fall apart in that particular direction without your authorization. You will be able to move past that ebb much more effectively – if that is your goal – if you stand lovingly with yourself (see Self-Compassion: The Hardest Skill for more on this). If you prefer to stay attached to the idea that you don’t deserve self-compassion, you can of course. You are in charge of what you offer yourself.
This is part of Pema’s point. Life will come together and fall apart – we are not in charge of that. We are in charge of making room for all that comes with it. We are in charge of not blaming ourselves for things that are out of our control. It takes perspective to do this well.
The wisdom of her quote comes from Pema’s perspective on life. She sees life from a far distance, like observing the earth from the moon. From this perspective, you can see it all. The current moment is considered within the context of the bigger picture. From this perspective, you can more clearly see where you have some control and where you don’t. You can start to distinguish the immutable cycles from the impactable moments.
So take some time to watch the patterns of your life. Notice the falling apart and the coming together. And the falling apart and the coming together. Notice what happens when you let that cycle happen instead of fighting against it. This is an ongoing journey for me – I still catch myself trying to figure out which code to crack, especially when life is ebbing. It is a relief each time I put things back in perspective.