December 1st, 2017

Letting go of the dark

Somewhere in the middle of the holiday season, we find ourselves looking for light. It is dark by 4:15 p.m. on December 21, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The earth, tilted 23 degrees on its axis, is tilting away from the sun even though we are as close as we will ever get to the source of the light we crave.

Outdoors, the evening commute is a string of lights, oncoming white and receding red, while indoors, lamps are lit, fireplaces blaze and we add even more lights to celebrate the winter holidays. Our past experience and all of natural history tell us that the light will return, but at the beginning of December in New England, we can be forgiven if we are not entirely sure.

This year the dark season has coincided with my wife’s discovery of a book of Zen stories for children, “Zen Shorts” by Jon J. Muth, and one of them in particular has been holding my attention.

It is the story of an old monk and his young companion who encounter in their travels a young woman trying to step out of her sedan chair, which had been set down at her destination where a large puddle spanned the road.

Her attendants were too busy unloading her packages to help and, while she was scolding them, the old monk picked her up and set her down on the other side of the water. The woman did not say thank you but pushed the monk aside and went on her way.

The two monks continued on in silence until the younger one, unable to contain himself any longer, expressed his anger about the woman’s lack of gratitude. After you, an old man, strained yourself to carry her, no thanks whatsoever! I carried her a short distance and then set her down, his companion replied, but you are still carrying her.

Especially in a time of darkness, it is good to have a story like this that shocks us into awareness of the ways we contribute to our own unhappiness and prompts us to savor the joy of the moment, unencumbered by past hurts.

Like the young monk in the story, we all need to lay down the burdens that interfere with living a meaningful and reasonably contented life. His older and wiser companion provides a wonderful role model for us all and, in our work as psychologists, he is an especially good example of insight in action, the healer who lives what he knows in his bones and teaches by the example of his life.

I know a man who is convinced that his life would have unfolded peacefully if he had not left his native country to seek his fortune in America. He imagines how he might have lived on his family’s farm with his wife and children and then taken care of his parents in their declining years. If only he hadn’t left home, he would not have suffered the mental illness he is struggling with today.

I hear in his cry the familiar chord of regret that we all feel from time to time but made more plaintive by the enormity of his suffering.

In my own family, I have a cousin who is 12 years younger and who faced the same choices as I did about where to go to high school and college. Each of us narrowed the field down to the same two options for high school and we were each accepted by the same college.

He went to one high school and I went to the other. He chose the college that accepted us both and I chose another. Now on the rare occasions when we see each other, almost exclusively at family funerals, he jokes that he is living my alternate life.  Or am I living his?

He is an attorney and I am a retired psychologist but we do not compare our levels of job satisfaction or overall well-being. Neither of us will ever really know what would have happened if we had made the other’s choice, but one thing is certain: For whatever we think we might have gained, we would have missed the good that each of us knows in his life.

In her book, “The Gift of Years,” spiritual writer Joan Chittister describes regret as a useless exercise and a burden not worth carrying. We did what we did and the real question is whether or not we have grown as fully as possible as a result of the decisions we made. If we haven’t, there is still time and the task is easier when we can apply ourselves to it free from the weight of regret.

The hardest regrets to lay down are those that involve any of our actions that have hurt others but, even here, Chittister reminds us that regretting the injury we caused is, in itself, a sign of our growth and perhaps the first step in seeking forgiveness.

The winter holidays are upon us, the season of peace and light, but we cling stubbornly to burdens that keep us from the joy we say we want. The earth is stubborn too and leans away from the light that is as close as it will ever be. Then, rounding the far curve of our celestial track, we begin the long glide into spring, leaning forward on the way to summer and letting the darkness go.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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