The Art of Staying Present – Lessons from the Little Ones

I used to think of joy and pain as opposing forces, like light and dark, impossible for them to co-exist without one overpowering the other. In my mind it was as if these two emotional experiences were in a cosmic battle for dominance, each seeking to make a life experience either good or bad.

I had a narrative that I held to and the story was that negative emotions could ruin good experiences. It was an all-or-nothing game and you either came out unscathed, having protected the good experience or you came out disappointed, having had some kind of negative feeling that ruined what was originally good.

As you can imagine, I wound up feeling disappointed often.

Because the thing of it is, negative feelings are bound to be part of our experiences at some level. Maybe something as mild as a bit of irritation, maybe something more soul shaking, like grief. We will never manage to fully protect ourselves from those negative feelings, nor to control them enough to keep them entirely at bay.

Something happened in my perspective on this when my son was born. Probably because I was and still am, determined to try to catch as many of the beautiful and profound memories of the early days of his life as I can. I can remember sitting in a wingback chair when he was just a few weeks old, nursing him and trying to hold all the senses and feelings of that moment in my mind. I wanted to create a snapshot to hold onto that encompassed what he smelled like, the noises he made, the light in the room, the feelings in my body, everything. And sometimes I was successful at holding those memories, noticing the incredible beauty of a newborn in the midst of the rage of hormones, exhaustion and overwhelm of being a new mother.

When a child is in the room, you can’t help but notice how they move through the experiences of each moment without holding onto what came before or anticipating what will come next.  A child who is gleefully exploring the world around them in one moment and feeling the bone-crushing disappointment of being told no in the next. Children move through emotions more fluidly than adults do, they have the gift of being fully present from one moment to another. They recognize that although one moment is bad or feels painful, the next might be full of beauty and happiness, and they have no reason to not believe it will be so. They feel the struggle, the disappointment, even their own pain but they are then drawn in by something that brings them joy and the pain takes its place behind them.

Now, I don’t want to trivialize pain in our adult lives and somehow convey that we should move through complicated grief or the deep struggles of the heart as a child does, but I do want to ask if maybe the littles in our lives have something to teach us. Showing us how to let us ourselves feel whatever we feel without the narratives that hold us in those feelings and cloud our ability to stay present.

What I have come to understand is that you can still be present in the beautiful, joyful moments of life with a heavy heart. Even as you carry your own struggle and try to work your way through it, you can still find reasons to laugh. You can feel your grief as raw as the first day it came to visit you, but still catch the little moments of joy with the people in your life you love.

I’ve been listening to the Dixie Chicks Lullaby some nights as I put my son to sleep and she sings

“As you wander through this troubled world
In search of all things beautiful
You can close your eyes when you’re miles away
And hear my voice like a serenade”

And with the pompousness of the following statement aside, in a lot of ways, I think that’s why we’re here. We’re here to search for all things beautiful as we wander through this troubled world. We are here to learn how to find the joy, in the times when it is easy to find and the times when it is not.

It is as if children come into the world doing exactly what we are all supposed to do, knowing it perfectly and innately and we adults are being called to watch them and to re-learn how to see it the way they do. To experience awe and wonder through simple things, and to move through our emotions without staying in them, welcoming the next moment and whatever it brings. Creating space and openness for our grief or whatever pain we feel, while also finding the courage to notice the beautiful and let joy into the darker corners of our hearts.

There is so much good here, there is so much beauty. There is also a lot of sadness and struggle. We live in the space in between those seemingly opposite emotions and welcome them to somehow live side by side.

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