I’m eleven years old. I’m in the deep end of a swimming pool, small wet hands fastened on to the pool ladder. My instructor bends over.
“Let go,” she says.
“I will,” I tell her.
“Let go now.”
I pull one hand away from the rung. I want to move my other hand, but I cannot.
“You know how to swim already,” she says. “Just let go.”
I do know how to swim. I’ve been practising every day in the shallow end and I can manage several lengths without stopping. But this is the deep end, and I’m not ready to let go.
I’m twenty. My friend has a broken heart. We’re walking down a street in Boston at two AM, watching the shallow pool of light that spills out of bar doors and onto the pavement. We’ve been drinking champagne at her house, because we’re not old enough yet to be let in anywhere.
“Please give me my phone,” she begs. “Please.”
“I don’t have it,” I lie. I pretend to feel in my bag. My fingers close over the phone.
I shake my head. I’m doing this for her own good, I tell myself. It’s no more than she’s asked me to do. In the morning, I’ll give her phone back.
She looks at me. Her lashes are wet, still stiff and spiky with mascara. She is so beautiful and sad in this moment that I am angry with the boy who has broken her heart. If he saw her like this, I know he would not care.
I give up. I give her the phone. She sits on the pavement, not caring what passers-by think. She calls him: once, twice, thrice. But there is no answer, as I know there would not be. She texts. There is no reply.
I’m twenty-five years old. I am in a constant state of low-level pain. The kind that doctors might qualify as ‘a dull generalized ache.’ It is not sharp. It never becomes acute. I am barely even aware of it. But it clings to me, suffusing every aspect of my life until I am no longer excited about anything. I am not sure that excitement really exists.
When someone asks me out, my first reaction is puzzlement. I feel no spark in myself, nothing that would interest another human being. I go through old conversations with ex-boyfriends. I look at photos from when I felt pretty. Lighter. I am filled with a longing that seems deathless, so strong it will outlive me no matter how much I want it to die.
One day, I open a diary that I kept when I was twelve, maybe thirteen. In it, I have written about the life I imagined living at twenty-five. I laugh at Young Me for being a foolish dreamer, but after I close the diary, I keep thinking about that life. I find it impossible to let it go. It is not until two years later, when I’m twenty-seven and able to feel excitement again, that I will let that dream go.
How are we to cope with suffering?
Buddhism says this: there are two causes of suffering. Upādāna and Tanhā. Attachment and desire. We are attached to things that cannot be ours, which makes us unhappy. In order to attain Nirvana, one must kill attachment. In the story of Siddhartha, he leaves his wife and children, all his worldly goods, his wealth and prestige behind. When I read this story, I scoffed. I imagine being him and having a conversation with my wife and children.
“I’m sorry, guys. I love you. I really do. It’s just that I need to attain Nirvana, and first I gotta kill attachment. So you see, leaving you is really the right thing to do. Have a nice life. I won’t write.”
No, I was convinced that the Buddhist solution was impossible. And yet -
I went back to the story and tried to read it as a metaphor. What if Siddhartha hadn’t actually left? What if there was no physical act of departure? What if he had stayed in his palace, being a good husband and father, but his soul wandered out to meet its destiny under the Bodhi tree? Was there a lesson in that reading for me?
In that classic grieving anthem Unbreak My Heart, Toni Braxton sings “I can’t forget the day you left/Time is so unkind.”
It is tender, affecting. It is also a lie.
Here are some tools you can use. You do not need to buy them. They are already in your toolbox. They are in everybody’s toolbox. They are facts that are designed specifically to alleviate the pain of existence. There are not many — only two — but they are incredibly true and incredibly important.
Fact I. Lots of people are like you.
You are not unique. Every bad feeling you have ever had? Somebody else has had that exact feeling. Lots of someones. If you read books, you’ll discover that people have been having those exact same feelings since before books were invented. And this will make you feel better. It’s stupid that thatwill make you feel better. But it will.
Fact II. Good things are going to happen to you.
That is a FACT. It is not a prediction. It is a fact. It doesn’t matter how miserable you are currently, or that bad things keep happening. It doesn’t matter what age you are. There is a good thing that is scheduled to happen to you. (More than one, but I guarantee at least one.) You don’t know when it is, or where it is, or what it is, which is hard. But if you just keep going down the path you’re going, you will find it. The only way to miss the Good Thing is to stop going.
You’re going to get that corner office someday. Two years from now, you’re going to learn to fly planes. Thirty years from now, you’ll meet your childhood idol, and they will tell you you’re cool. Ten years from now, you’ll be holding a little person (that you made!) in your arms. In that moment, you will find it impossible to remember what suffering looks like.
My friend, the one who was so heartbroken at twenty, met somebody else after that. And then she met somebody else after that. And then somebody else. And then somebody else. And — I don’t know what number she’s on right now, but you get the picture.
That’s what happens. That’s how life works. There’s always somebody else. And he’ll have a bigger dick.
Instead of trying to get rid of our emotions, drown them out, or ignore them, we’ll practice giving our emotions an infinite amount of space and time to change within.
Let’s start right now. What emotions are you experiencing? What are you feeling right now? Identify it with a single word.
Whatever’s arising right now, even if you’re not sure what to call it — see if you can give it some more space to arise within.
Let the experience get as big as it wants. Let it take up as much space as it needs. Notice how it changes as you do this. Does it become more intense? Less? Or does it change and morph into something else? Give your experience an infinite amount of space to be felt within.
What are you feeling right now?
In addition to giving your experience space, give your experience as much time as it wants. Give it permission to have an infinite amount of time to be present, if that’s what it needs.
Notice what happens when you give your experience as much space and time as it wants. Notice how it changes, becomes softer. Notice how the pain is diffused. Notice how the longing lessens, grows weaker. Notice how giving it permission, giving it infinity, makes it harder to hold on to. Notice how it leaves you.
I’m twenty-seven years old.
I don’t have anything figured out. I don’t know anything. I have lots of hard days. I still experience suffering so acute I think it will snap my ribs and take out my steaming heart. But right now, right at this very moment, I’m sitting here at my desk, looking at city lights. Trying to figure suffering out with you. Trying to figure out how to let things go. Perhaps that is a kind of grace.
You know how my swimming instructor got me to let go of the edge?
She grabbed my hands and threw me into the deep end. I was so angry I could have screamed, and so afraid I wanted to cry. But it turns out I did know how to swim.