At the time I had been a single
parent for more than a year. The nightmare of separation and
divorce was fading. My family of three was turning into a
well-functioning, happy unit. The hardest part was driving off to
work before the two boys left for school--especially since they
had to cross a state highway to catch their school bus. On this
particular morning, Hilly, the eight-year-old, came jumping into
my arms just as I was about to leave for work.
"Daddy, daddy," he
exclaimed, "I just have to tell you how much I love
you." His innocent, joyful smile radiated love as he hugged
me tightly. Then, looking directly into my eyes he said it again:
"I love you, daddy."
For a moment I just soaked up his
effusive love and felt blessed to be the father of such a son.
After the long hug, Hilly hopped down and went merrily off to
finish his breakfast. Mulling over my good fortune, I skipped out
gently towards my car. Then a strange and unexpected wave of
intense emotion poured over me. I was startled by an upsurge of
rage. Why should my son's spontaneous generosity so upset me?
Instead of driving away, I sat in
the car for a while, curious and dazed. I felt angry at God--or
was it life itself?-- for the incredible uncertainty that clouds
my existence. I had no guarantee that all would stay well and
that each member of my family would be safe and alive hours later
when I returned home from work.
Like everyone else's, my
subconscious is full of horror stories of mutilated children and
sudden, unexpected, family- destroying disasters. Hilly's
overflowing warmth, which at first triggered love and gratitude,
soon uncovered the terror and biting anger that I also live with.
I shuddered at the thought of how unbearably empty my life would
be without him. A shadow of fragility and vulnerability now
weighed heavy on my heart, replacing anger with sobriety.
At that moment, I realized I had
a choice. I could hold back some of my love to protect myself; or
I could accept the risks inherent in life--painful and terrifying
as they are-- and continue to love and give all of myself.
To live fully we must love
deeply. Loving deeply requires a willing surrender to the
unknown. It requires vulnerability. It means we must accept and
work with risk.
Love stretches us to explore our
limits. Love asks us to disappear into the moment where its glory
is revealed and to have faith that we can bear whatever we must
face. When we shy away from risk, then we simultaneously shy away
from love. And if we shy away from love, we are no longer fully
alive. We are called upon to love, to melt into each moment, to
have faith that we will abide, all the while knowing that we
don't know what lies ahead.
Deep down we all know this, but
in our fear we slip into comfortable but unconscious habits that
prevent us from tasting directly the true joy of life. Something
blocks us from standing too close to the light and glory of our
Lord Krishna, one of the Hindu
gods, was once asked by his chief disciple to describe the
strangest thing about all of existence. Krishna replied that
although we know intellectually that we will die and that death
and decay are all about us, we never believe in our guts that it
will happen to us. We ignore the essential, protecting ourselves
in a thousand different ways from seeing the terrifying reality
that our lives are transitory and can only be appreciated when we
stop and cherish life itself.
We shy away from love because
we're afraid of the pain that comes with loving. The cure for
this fear, paradoxically, is to love more. When my son hugged me,
it triggered a mysterious and painful anger that awakened me to
my subconscious fears. Once alerted, I chose to be more loving
and accept my vulnerability. It was either that or stay angry and
keep some distance from my son. To walk the tightrope of life
with grace, we must continually choose to love despite the ever
dangerous forces of fear and unconsciousness that can trip us up
faster than a horse can swish its tail.
After observing the process of
grief and renewal with thousands of dying patients, the renowned
psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross noted that the thoughts of
people approaching death turn almost exclusively to intimate
relationships. Only the love that people have shared throughout
their lives remains of comfort and value to them.
If living with love and intimate
relationships is such a basic need and so pervasive a force, why
are we so poor at it? Why are there so many wars, so many
problems? Why do sincere, good people, people who desperately
want their lives to work, who want to find joy, companionship,
and cooperation, so often come up empty handed? It is not unusual
for a parent, initially ripe with love and devotion for his or
her small child, to be mired in a generational conflict fifteen
or twenty years later--the child rejecting the parent's values
and claiming that any love shown was impure. And how many
marriages start so brightly, full of faithful promises and joyous
expectations, only to crash into bitter, ugly disputes full of
betrayal, accusation, and blame? Something is wrong. Something is
missing. Somehow our fear of love and our inability to risk
wisely destroys the love we seek.
One premise of this book is that
we are out of balance or alignment with an integral component of
life--risk. Instead of using risk to empower our lives--accepting
and working with the uncertainty inherent in existence--we let
our fears confuse and overwhelm us.
Risk is part of life. It can't be
avoided. Helen Keller wrote:
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist
in nature nor do children as a whole experience it. Avoiding
danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.
When we push risk away it
boomerangs back and hits us from behind. Risk wakes us up. We
need it to create passion. But using it well is not so easy.
Ellen is a good example. She
began therapy after realizing she had to choose between her
husband of twenty years or a different man she was falling in
love with. Outwardly Ellen's life was the picture of
respectability--a two-professional, three-child family, happily
ensconced in the suburbs. But she admitted: "I never heard
my parents fight. I was brought up country-club conservative, and
I fit the part except that I drink and drive, have mad, illicit
affairs, and live on an unhealthy edge."
Ellen was bored and needed
excitement to know that her brief time on this planet mattered.
Because her early life had been so proper and staid, she craved
emotional intensity. As a child anger was forbidden and
exuberance discouraged. She received no training in how to manage
her natural and healthy desire to risk. So she created a secret
wild side that she is both ashamed and proud of. To save her
marriage she must reveal this hidden self to her husband--because
he doesn't know who she is. This is a risk of terrifying
proportions, but perhaps the only one that can save her
Many clients have confessed that
as they near the object of their intense desire, be it a romantic
relationship or job improvement, they get scared and begin to
sabotage themselves. They let their fear of risk overwhelm them,
so they are stopped short of reaching their goals. One client who
was physically abused as a child, for example, loves children and
craves the closeness of a family; but he simply cannot trust
himself to not harm a future child. So when a woman gets too
close to him he pushes her away. His life revolves around a
tragic cycle of seeking love only to pull back into isolation and
loneliness whenever love draws close.
We're afraid to love. Loving well
requires us to live boldly in the face of the risk that life is.
Many of us forget that we do have the power to choose to not let
our fears of intimacy or success overpower us. Too often we don't
know how to make that choice.
We crave intimacy but find it
incredibly difficult to create; one step forward, one step back.
There are few successful role models. The information that helps
us move towards living a passionate and deeply loving life is
difficult to decipher, and even harder to practice. The craving
for intimacy amidst a tug of war between our love and fear is a
primary struggle for many.
One client confessed that she
couldn't imagine surviving the possible death of a child of her
own. So unspeakable was that fear and pain that she preferred
instead the safety of an empty womb. The risk of unbearable loss
simply seemed too great.
To love well is difficult; it is
also scary. Life is no fairy tale. Mice are mice, not coachmen;
and pumpkins are pumpkins, not carriages. It's great that the
Prince fell in love with Cinderella's tiny feet and that they
lived happily ever after. But for the rest of us, the only magic
wand is the one that we ourselves pick up on the day we firmly
commit to become a better human being.
Laura had been trained from an
early age to stifle her sensitivity and self-expression. Her
parents wanted her to be "tough." So they nailed her
every time she displayed vulnerability. She kept hoping, often
desperately, that they would start being supportive and kind.
They never did.
Thirty years later, Laura was
fighting to stave off divorce. She had withdrawn from her husband
because the risks associated with loving him no longer made
sense. She was weary from fighting with a guy who put her down
just as her parents had.
She knew that to give her
marriage another chance she would have to let herself be
vulnerable and accept that her husband was also scared and trying
to change. But after fifteen years of marriage she no longer
believed things could be different. Better, she reasoned, to take
her kids and strike out on her own--as hard as that might
be--than to relive her childhood trauma of desperately hoping
that her parents would change.
This couple's issues were not as
complex as Laura claimed. They didn't fight about money, the
kids, or the way responsibilities were divided. They fought about
fighting. Civility and kindness had gone into hibernation as a
deep angry freeze settled in through the years. They needed
guidelines for better communication and perspective about their
But Laura was gun shy. She was
four-fifths out the door when the counseling began and unwilling
to make much effort. Within several weeks she recognized the
withdrawal pattern from her childhood. No one had ever been there
for her. "I lived with high expectations, but no
guidance," she told me.
"What a devastating
combination. This time it will be different," I reassured
her "I'll be on your side. You'll get the information you
need to fight fair and you'll have my caring and support." I
explained that I would make it safer for her to be vulnerable and
help her husband understand how to do the same. "You aren't
a kid anymore," I told her. "You have resources now you
didn't have then. Stick around, you won't regret it."
She knew that if she walked she
was leaving more than her husband; she also would be leaving the
hope that her childhood traumas could be healed. Although she
needed coaxing, she did stick around and accepted that a good
marriage requires hard work and a willingness to risk. Her
husband was not oblivious and also worked hard. Together they
saved their relationship.
This book is being written so
that if, like Laura, if you're facing a challenge in your life,
you can get some encouragement, inspiration, and guidance to
stick around and work on it. Spiritual and psychological growth
takes courage. I hope to inspire you with stories of people who
have blazed some trails and shown us with their actions that
loving and risking are worth it. The stories come from my life as
a father, a husband, and a professional therapist.
Unlike the realm of professional
sports, where television crews cover virtually every muscle
twitch, the telling moments in our lives usually occur in
private. As a therapist I have had the privileged opportunity of
listening to thousands of people intimately describe their risks,
their fears, and their secret aspirations.
These pages invite you to immerse
yourself in people's lives as they stand poised or trembling on
the tightrope that life often is. In any risky endeavor the
pleasures of accomplishment are heightened by the perils we face.
We'll look closely at different crossroads people meet as they
try to determine which path is best. Some stories describe minor
choices or issues--problems that arise daily in the course of
every life. Others focus on crucial turning points of obvious
importance. Each story is designed to move you a little closer
towards your own power and magnificence so like the artist on the
high wire, you can balance your life with equanimity and ease.
The book is organized around five
core values that, taken together, provide perspective and a set
of tools to help us embrace the mystery of life. They are
honesty, respect, responsibility, commitment and balance. The
glue holding these together is our intention. For clarity's sake,
I discuss them separately; but as life unfolds, such distinctions
break down. Mastery arises when these core values operate in
A Zen master once described
enlightenment as the acceptance of reality exactly as it is,
moment to moment. I don't know about enlightenment, but I do know
that not accepting life as it is produces suffering. We live with
risk. Trying to make life safe when that is not its nature is a
foolish and impossible goal. Peace arises with the acceptance of
life and ourselves as we are. Becoming adept at working with
these five core values provides us with a foundation from which
growth and expansion naturally proceed.
The theme of accepting reality is
central to working effectively with risk. To accept reality as it
is requires vigilance. Our resistance to or non-acceptance of
life is so ordinary we don't even see it. I pull up to a
supermarket line and notice after a while, for example, that it
is moving slowly because the clerk is a trainee. There are now
people behind me, so I'm sandwiched in. Do I relax and see this
as an opportunity to enjoy a moment with nothing going on? Or do
I tense up and impatiently wonder whether I'll have enough time
for something else?
In this culture we're conditioned
to hurry. A hundred times a day--or is it a thousand?--our minds
rebel against reality, wishing it to be different. An
undercurrent of complaining runs through most of our lives. Yet
if I were dying of cancer or recovering from a stroke, I'd want
nothing more than to be physically capable of still caring for
myself, of going shopping, of waiting in line.
Some of this book provides
specific communication tools and information that can help sort
out the complexity of life. We need to ask the right questions
and think productively about the issues that are germane to our
life. We need to know that the battles we're fighting are the
right ones. This requires a thorough grounding in those basic
communication tools that help us confront our issues effectively.
Just as a master carpenter is helpless without the appropriate
tools, we need to understand how to communicate well to move
safely from one risky moment to the next.
As a therapist, I watch in
amazement and horror as loving people with poor communication
skills destroy their family. Sometimes the remedy is as simple as
reminding people not to interrupt. It wouldn't surprise me if
fifty percent of all marital issues can be traced to this easily
ameliorated problem. That's an amazing statement, not an
exaggeration. Basic communication skills can make the difference
between success and failure in love.
Much of what I write about, you
may already know. But this book can serve as a powerful reminder
to return to the basics. One example of a great communication
tool is described in Aldous Huxley's book Island, which describes
his version of Utopia. This ideal land was filled with talking
parrots; each one knew only one word and said it often. The word
was "Attention," and it served to remind the islanders
to be fully aware at each moment.
Sometimes, however, I'll be
painting broader strokes that offer inspiration and perspective
on life and our general struggles. I move around from the
personal to the universal and from the general to the specific. I
find this style helps clients integrate information more easily.
One teacher said, "Run from
anyone who tells you that life is not difficult." Making
tough changes and accepting ourselves as we are is not easy.
There are times when grace is obvious, often we're lost in
shadows or darkness. I write to offer encouragement and
perspective, as well as humor and pathos. To accept the thousands
of joys and sorrows that life in all its devastating richness
brings--this takes courage and skill.