When someone you love is ill everything slows to a stop. The focus of your mind narrows to a pinpoint. Your priorities become clear and all that is less important fades into a grey blur. You want to make it better, wave a magic wand so that all is well and the pain is over. Or take that pain yourself. But you can’t. And nor should you necessarily do so. We learn and gain so much depth and perspective when we go through hard times. Certainly, when I look back on my own life I realize that I would not wish away all the difficulties and tragedies that I have experienced, however painful they were at the time. I have come to see that it is these challenges that provide us with the opportunity to develop some wisdom.
Many years ago I was running a Creativity workshop for Kent County Council and I remember asking the group individually to draw something that gave them a sense of wonder. One woman drew a picture similar to the one below:
When I asked her what the picture meant, she said that once you have children your heart is living many lives, for as they wander around the world on their many journeys, one’s heart is not only on one’s own path but also on theirs. I found it touching and have thought of it often when I think about my children flying across the Atlantic or my grandchildren going to school or nursery for the first time, or taking a school trip. My heart seems to have flown around the world in multiple directions over the last few years. And there is always a sense of relief and gratitude in a safe return, a safe landing. There is also immeasurable joy in a school cup rewarding a 5-year old’s effort, or a 3-year old granddaughter telling me very seriously “When I grow up I want to be a tooth fairy.”
Another friend once remarked that, as a parent, you are only ever as happy as your most unhappy child. I have both experienced this and observed it in my friends who are parents. When a child suffers, you suffer. Now that I am older I find myself thinking about my mother and the worries she still felt for us all, even when she was in her eighties and we children were well into our fifties. We may have been adult but we were still her children and she, too, lived our lives alongside hers.
But, as I am learning, we have to be careful to differentiate and separate ourselves enough not to live our children’s lives too closely, especially when they become adult. One can’t live the lives of others. When my first grandchild was born I was so overwhelmed by love for her that I thought of her every day and perhaps too often. I had to pull my heart back a little and remind myself that she was not my child but that of my son and daughter-in-law and so ultimately the worries, pleasures and immediate concerns about her were theirs, not directly mine. I could love them but at more of a distance than my heart might have chosen! One needs to focus on living one life, on making one’s own life the best and wisest it can be, whilst giving as much love and support to one’s children and grandchildren as one is able.
I frequently remind myself of what I consider to be the wise words of Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet. He writes “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you …You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts… and their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth…the arrow flies and the bow is stable.”
As a parent you may have many ideas and suggestions about how your children live their lives but we have to tread carefully as we do not, ultimately, know what the future holds nor what is a ‘right’ solution to a problem that is not our own problem. One has to trust the child and the universe that they intuit what is right for them.
And that reminds me of the time when I was making a major life change and switching career. My parents loved me very much but were not enthusiastic about my retraining to become a management coach and business trainer. They didn’t understand what the role involved and were nervous of me starting my own business and setting up alone. But something in my gut told me it was the right decision for me – a future that I could see but they couldn’t. And I was right. The last 25 years of setting up and running Positiveworks have been amazing and enabled me to travel the world and meet so many stimulating people. My parents were also right in warning me that it would be hard work and a challenge with an uncertain outcome. But they couldn’t see what I envisaged and if I had listened to their advice I might have deprived myself of some wonderful experiences. I was living in the “house of tomorrow” and they were the stable bow.
So perhaps it is, as I sit in Hampshire with a chilly fog so thick that I can’t even see the hedge at the end of our garden, a timely reminder that we cannot know what the future holds for ourselves let alone our children. And perhaps also to question how many hearts we have trotting along the pavements or flying thousands of miles up in the sky and how many lives we are trying to live – whether we are getting the balance in supporting others enough but not too much. For holding too many hearts too closely can be tiring for us and potentially claustrophobic for them.
And of course I shall hope that my own sons will read this and put me right if the balance of my attention is out of kilter!