Views From the Tightrope
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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 intense fragility.

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 relationship.

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 lives.

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 harmony.

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.

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