Peanut Butter Side Down
The other day I made a piece of toast for my roommate’s two-year-old son. He dropped it on the floor, peanut butter side down. We both just stood there for a moment, looking at the mess. Then he started to wail. And I’m so bad with kids, I was clueless. All I could do was clean it up. I’m good at that part.
Except it wasn’t my roomate’s toddler. It’s my dear friends. And it wasn’t toast. It’s their lives on the floor peanut butter side down. And I can’t clean this up. I feel like I’m stuck in the moment of looking down, thinking of course that’s how it is, immobile.
I’m so bad with people. All I can do is stand there looking at the mess and the tears feeling strangely helpless. Normally I cry when other people cry. I cry when a friend is sad, when a stranger gets hurt, when people on television lose their loves, when the little dinosaur’s mother dies. I cry every damn time. But not now. Now I’m impenetrable and unstoppable. The karma is stirring in the back of my mind.
I can feel myself turtling, pulling in, pulling away. I feel the illogical calm, the irrationally cheer. Somebody ought to be cheerful right? I go running back to my safety zone, socially isolated and emotionally unavailable. I it so clearly. Everyone’s problems become no more than games, puzzles to be intellectually solved. I would hate myself for it, just a little, if I were capable of feeling hate. But right now I’m too busy for that, too busy to feel.
Was it always like this? I wonder. This cheerfulness is familiar. It come around often enough, not every semester, but any semester. I get to the home stretch. The work starts piling up and the choice is between stopping and pushing on. I’m happy in self defense, because that’s what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other. Willful ignorance masquerading as equanimity. But was it always like this for everyone else? I wonder. Did everyone’s lives fall apart and I just never noticed before?
Socially isolated and emotionally unavailable. Has this been my life for the last six years and I never even noticed? Now that I have friends again, everything seems different.
Now I’m standing in the kitchen surrounded by those friends and their lives are on the floor peanut butter side down. I can’t take the heat. I can’t take not being able to fix it. I can’t take the fact that it isn’t fixable. My body is still there, but my mind and heart have wandered away like someone in shock after an accident who can’t even remember what has happened to her. I’m afraid I can’t care that much.
But that’s the job description, isn’t it? I want to be a chaplain. Chaplains care. We’re not there to fix people’s problems. Death, illness, sorrow, trauma, and grief aren’t fixable. People do mend, but we can’t fix them. Will I be able to do that day after day? Will it be different when they’re not my personal friends? Can I turn this into real equanimity and still be emotionally available? Can I take the heat in the kitchen?
I don’t know, but I suppose I’ll find out. If I want to discover whether or not I can do this, I do need to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but I need to do it with my eyes and my heart open. After all, I once walked the tunnel from Alameda to Oakland by putting one foot in front of the other. That’s how people climb mountains and cross continents. That kind of effort belongs to more than the academic realm. I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other where my heart is concerned as well, to keep it open, available, and aware. I don’t think this false cheer will fade anytime soon, but I’m more aware of it than I’ve ever been before. I’ll count that as a step in the right direction. When I walked from Alameda to Oakland, I had no idea when I would see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other. Let’s hope the strategy, and my stubbornness, holds true. Maybe someday I’ll leave the shell behind.