Years ago I was teaching at a charter school in Washington, DC. The school was struggling with some powerful challenges and I was not very good at keeping my head down and focusing solely on my own business. As a result, the stress was really taking its toll. I was beginning to have physical symptoms from my stress and was averaging about 5 hours of sleep per night.
The lack of good sleep just made my inability to manage my stress worse, increased my reliance on caffeine to wake up and wine to slow down, which interfered with my sleep. It was a vicious cycle. I began to have heart palpitations from the stress. And then my fertility doctor said something that really shook me: “There is no way you will get pregnant like this. You’re going to have to change something.”
I was completely freaked out. We had been trying to have children for almost 7 years and had identified this as our very LAST attempt. If this didn’t work (there was also adoption paperwork in progress), we said, we would just be the aunt and uncle who traveled a lot and gave great gifts (it was a really good plan). We really wanted to be parents. And I was incapable of seeing or thinking a way out of my problem.
I was talking it over with my Dad one day, as I often did, and he asked if there wasn’t some way I could continue to work, but just not be quite so involved, if I couldn’t have a little more distance between me and my students, between me and the administration, between me and the neighborhood violence (he only knew about some of that and would have had other things to say had he known about all of it), between me and the world so that I could continue to teach without it bleeding into everything else. I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes at him (we were on the phone) and said: “Yeah, Dad, I’m great at that.”
As is so often the case, the wisdom we get from our elders (maybe especially from our parents) takes a while to really sink in. It has to marinate, and we have to hear it from at least 12 other sources, with three of them being deemed infinitely more in touch with our circumstances. I heard it. I read it. I saw it in action, this “getting a little distance” idea. It turns out that, as has all too often been the case, my Dad was exactly right. I DID just need a little distance. I needed a little distance from all of it.
I needed to be able to be involved in a pursuit and not be consumed by it. I needed to be able to experience mishaps and mistakes made by other professionals and not feel the need to address it at the systemic level EVERY TIME with FERVOR and OUTRAGE. I needed to be able to be aware of my students’ academic and personal struggles and not stay awake all night wondering if they’d made it home safely or if their parent had returned or if they would show up to school the next day. I needed to be able to interact with the world without reacting to it ALL OF THE TIME. I needed a little distance. At the time I got the distance I needed mentally and physically by leaving my job. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.
Since then, I’ve learned how to get a little distance without changing my circumstances. It took a long time. Some of it was maturing and mellowing, but the majority of it was a concerted effort on my part to learn to manage my mind a bit, to be able to watch how I think and how I feel, to feel compassion for myself when I was struggling and hurting, but to not be consumed by that experience. I learned how to do that, but I still struggle. I still have to remind myself that the things that I think and feel are leaves floating by on a stream and I can just allow them and then choose how to act rather than reacting. I still have to remind myself that I am in charge in there.
I wonder, when I think about this skill set that I’ve developed, how the last twenty years might have been different had I gotten on that lesson a little sooner. I sift through decisions that I might have made differently, not with regret, but with curiosity, as though I’m watching a movie and smiling a little at the inexperience of the heroine.
What’s done is done, as they say. What I know for sure is that the decisions that I’ve made since I’ve been able to get a little distance have all felt wholly different, deeply satisfying. I feared that if I wasn’t so reactive it would mean my heart wasn’t in it, but I think I had it backwards. When I’m not so reactive, my chattering monkey brain gets sidelined and makes room for my heart, for the core of me that’s connected to the core of all of you, the stillness and the peace that lives in the knowledge that we are all but a part and that each moment is ours to witness. When I get a little distance, I can choose peace and love and integrity. And boy does that feel good. Thanks Dad. I miss you.