In Beauty from the Ashes , I suggested that we have become addicted to the safety of what we know. We strive for certainty, sameness and comfort, and we prioritise this over growth - despite the fact that this security is a construct, an illusion. We have come to believe that life should be certain and predictable. And in this state,we become overwhelmed when this certainty and predictability is threatened. We do everything we can to avoid our lives changing in ways that are not of our choosing. We offer our condolences when we hear of someone “losing” something that they had acquired in life — a job, a house, a relationship, or someone they loved. We consistently want to avoid pain and hardship.
This is obvious. Who would want to experience pain? Who would want to experience hardship? But what if in our addiction to sameness, to the status quo, we are robbing ourselves of our greatest gifts and achievements?
THE SEDUCTION OF SAMENESS
Synaptic pruning is a natural process that occurs in the brain between early childhood and adulthood. During synaptic pruning, the brain eliminates extra synapses. It is thought to be the brain's way of removing connections in the brain that are no longer needed.
Researchers have found that the brain is more “plastic” and mouldable than previously thought. Synaptic pruning is our body’s way of maintaining more efficient brain function as we get older and learn new, complex information.
Sameness and certainty impedes the brain’s natural plasticity. The brain will immediately start pruning off the parts that are unused, and rather turn our regular comfortable practices into super-highways in our head.
So if everything stays the same around us, then it appears that everything stays the same within us. We stop learning, we stop expanding, we stop growing. Comfort and predictably allow parts of our brains to shut down.
Evolution is a process that takes place when the environmental conditions become unconducive to our present ways of being. That underpins the idea that if our life remains too comfortable, we don’t grow, evolve or expand.
But our addiction to the sameness, certainty and safety seduces us and betrays us. It fools us into thinking that the objective is to keep what we have; to cling to the known, cling to the things we love, cling to the things that bring us comfort.
The better our life gets - the more we acquire material belongings, great jobs,wonderful people in our lives - the more attached we become to them. We love what we have and we never want to face having to lose anyone or anything that we have become accustomed to in life.
LIFE HAPPENS, DESPITE US
But time and time again through history, life has defied us; it has snatched our prized possessions, our jobs, our loved ones, our certainty right from underneath our nose. How dare it? How dare life take what we love? How dare life threaten what we have worked so hard for?
But how dare it not?
We have been deluded into thinking that life is about acquiring as much as we can in our “life basket” and then spending the rest of our life guarding that basket to make sure that we don’t suffer any pain or loss.
Maybe we are missing the point?
After 47 years on this planet, I am starting to realise that we don’t squeeze our exquisite and infinite souls into these little human bodies just so that we can acquire all the good stuff,seek comfort and then squirrel it away until the day comes that we are to leave these human forms.
Maybe we came here to grow. Maybe we came to expand. Maybe we came to experience the magnificence of our souls. Maybe we came to witness our own resilience. Maybe we came to experience our own ability to rise up out of the ashes of our losses, to keep finding new extraordinary pieces of ourselves each time we burn to the ground and we rise up anew.
SAYING YES TO MY MOST UNWANTED FATE
I know what it feels like to have the rug ripped from underneath me. I know what it feels like to be backed up into a corner with no way to escape the pain and agony of my loss. Two years ago when my husband died in a car accident while away on a work trip, my world came crashing down. This was the worst possible thing that could happen to me. This was my most dreaded loss . My husband was my most favourite human on the planet. He was my best friend. He was my lover. He was the father of my three children. He was my partner in life.
And one day life said “NO”. No, you can no longer continue to walk your road with this man by your side. No, you will no longer have a living partner to raise your children with. No, you will no longer have a living person to wake up next to every day and walk alongside in life. Just no.
That’s it. That’s all I got. No.
No sorry. No consolation prize. Just no.
I know the pain of waking up every day and realising that it’s true. I know what it feels like when your worst nightmare comes true - this is your life, this is your pain and there is NO WAY OUT OF IT.
I experienced a frenzied urge to somehow wiggle out of the corner I was in; to ask for a refund; to speak to the manager; to somehow change this most awful fate that I found myself in. But still, day after day, there was no way out.
In my attempt to survive, I quickly came to understand and accept that the only way out of this story that my life was starting to tell was through… I had to face the pain. I had to face the fear. I had to say yes to my most unwanted fate. I had to say yes to the unknown. I had to say yes to whichever direction my life was starting to take.
I had to adopt the phrase, “It’s my road so I will walk it”.
Don’t get me wrong. By no means did I pretend that I liked my road. I hated it. I hated every moment of this new existence. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want any part of it, but decided that I was going to do it.
There was no grand gesture. Instead it was a quiet surrender. Just putting one foot in front of the other, doing the next thing that felt right in the moment. One foot in front of the other, just reaching -- reaching for relief, reaching for joy, reaching for laughter, reaching for meaning, reaching for connection.
I realised that I didn’t know this version of me. I didn't know Renée the widow.
I had to learn who I was in the absence of my husband. I had to learn to be self-reliant and self-referencing. I had to learn how to internalise all the parts of me that I did not have to because Ian was those things. I had to learn how I felt about things. I had to learn what I wanted in the absence of what Ian wanted.
I felt very whole in my marriage. I felt independent and clear. I felt loved for exactly who I was and my husband never asked me to shrink so that we could fit better together.
But in the two years since Ian’s death I have learnt to feel and understand the edges of me, just me. And I found a deep resilience and a different wholeness inside of me. This is a wholeness that I did not experience as missing or compromised in my marriage.
The wholeness I have found is one that I didn’t know because I didn’t know it was missing. I didn’t know it because I never had to seek it. I didn’t know it because I was comfortable. I was content. It was only through falling apart that I found a part of myself that was on the horizon of my life.
I learnt that uncertainty and pain offers us perspective and experiences that we can never fully comprehend until we have it. As my friend said to me the other day, “Everything always makes sense in reverse”.
So what would life be like if we genuinely trusted it, rather than trying to control it?
ARTWORK SARAH HEINAMANN