Take it as it comes

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

How many times throughout the day do you think what is happening right now is not the way it should be? Honestly, I bet I think that 7 times or more an hour: I don’t like the noisy road repair outside my window. This waistband is too tight. Why isn’t that person responding faster to my email. It better not be raining when I want to walk. My soup doesn’t have enough chicken. My leg hurts. I could go on and on, all day long.
Imagine, then, the objection to reality you’d have if you’d grown up with a survivalist father so extreme in his beliefs you didn’t have a birth certificate or any education beyond his confused agenda? That was Tara Westover’s daily experience. She was a teenager before she got an inkling there were other ways to see and realized college would offer her a way to find out. She secretly got herself books and studied for tests, somehow managing to get herself in. Once at college it became very clear just how much her understanding of even the basic facts of history were at odds with her reality growing up.
She wrote of her experience and her incremental transformation in her memoir, Educated. In a conversation with Kate Bowler on Kate’s podcast, Everything Happens*, Tara speculates that maybe the point of education is learning how to see by first imagining being able to feel and think differently. To do that you must simultaneously let go of the illusion that the world is ever going to be the way you want it to be or even that it should be. Instead, Tara believes the question we should be asking of ourselves is this: How much can we tolerate and meet the world where it is with openness, curiosity and empathy?
She came to that question after realizing if the people she encountered in college hadn’t been curious about this homophobic racist who came from a family of survivalists and how that squared with the otherwise good person she seemed to be, then her life would have played out very differently. Had they simply dismissed her as another person who was not the way they “should have been,” it’s unlikely she would have ultimately ended up at Oxford in graduate school.
“I’m grateful that people who met me did not see me as another disappointment, but were more interested in ‘Why are you like that? You seem like an interesting person. You seem like a good person. Tell me how this set of beliefs you grew up with fits into that.’”
Tara’s question -- To what degree can we tolerate and meet the world where it is with openness, curiosity, and empathy? – would take care of a lot of added suffering. It would be the antidote to the deep dissatisfaction with life we feel every time we consciously or unconsciously object to the computer problem that won’t go away, the mess some family member left in the kitchen, the terseness in a co-worker’s email, the flab around our middle, or the traffic in your city.
To my point, right now I’m looking at a reminder to myself I’d gone to some trouble to type up, print out, trim down and tape to the top of my monitor which is as follows: “Here’s what I read. Is that what you mean?” These two sentences are reminders to always clarify whether what I think I’m seeing is what was meant. Had I not so automatically rejected an email I had received but instead allowed it to have happened, gotten curious about what was meant and shown some empathy to myself for the uncomfortable feelings ricocheting around inside of me, then I might have saved myself hours of stewing before finally getting up at two in the morning to express my objection only to discover later that my reading was NOT what the person meant.
The version of the experience I lived was terribly distressing and ultimately embarrassing. The version I could have lived had I been open and curious would have been so different. It’s rather mind blowing to think that the degree to which we can be open, curious and empathetic to whatever is happening is the proportionate degree to which we suffer less.
To suffering less,
* Everything Happens is short for Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved,) a fantastic book Kate wrote by that name after having been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Kate, mother of a young son, professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke University School of Divinity, an expert in the “prosperity gospel,” and a New York Times bestselling author, is doing unexpectedly well.