On Tuesday mornings I volunteer for an hour in my daughter’s Kindergarten class. It’s extremely fun. I love my daughter’s teacher. She’s very warm, but very firm, and she maintains standards in the room. The kids have to listen to each other. They have to keep their hands to themselves. They don’t have to agree with each other, but they have to be respectful. She’s really setting them up with great tools for life. Last week when I was there, one of the little girls was sitting at my table, and she crossed herself when an ambulance went by, and said something under her breath. I knew what she was doing, but she looked up at me with this little smile, and said, “I’m praying that everyone is okay.” She’s five. I told her that I do that, too, but I don’t use my hands. One of the other kids asked what she was doing with her hands, and she explained that she was asking God to take care of anyone who might be hurt. One of the kids asked what “God” was. I said it was a word that meant different things to different people, and that was a topic she could explore with her mom or dad. And we had a conversation about what it means to care about people, whether we know them or not. It was easily the best conversation of my week.
We get so caught up with labels and separation. We try to figure out who’s like us, and who’s different. We’re so prone to create an us and a them. But true spirituality doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t separate. It asks us to care about everyone, because we’re all part of the same family. I know it’s not easy, but if we start to expand that same idea to all living creatures, and the planet itself, we start to shift the way we’ve been moving through the world. Sometimes we learn things at home, like hatred. Hatred can be passed down from generation to generation, just like eye-color. When we’re little, our parents are god-like creatures, and it doesn’t occur to us to challenge what we’re being taught or told until we get old enough to realize we’re our own being. We have our own mind and our own heart and our own ability to discern and intuit and make sense of the world.
Hatred is a great divider, and it weakens its host. When we hate, we’re blind. In my opinion, it’s also unnatural to us. I spend a lot of time with little kids, not just because I have two of my own. I always have, because my little brother is eleven years younger than me. I’ve had a little person trailing around after me asking why questions for most of my life. We come into this world full of love and curiosity. We’re trusting and open, unless or until we have a reason not to be. Kids might ask guileless questions, like why someone has a different skin color, or why they observe different holidays, but it’s never with contempt. It’s with a genuine desire to understand. And kids do what we do, not what we say, as we well know. Maybe you don’t have kids, and maybe you don’t want them. But you were a child once, and it’s good to examine your beliefs about yourself, about other people, and about the world around you. Sometimes something we’ve learned is so ingrained, we don’t even question it. I get emails from people who were told they were mistakes. That they’d never amount to anything. That they were meant to be seen and not heard. That their parents wanted a boy, not a girl. That they’re a disappointment.
Also, you can preach compassion all day long, but if you’re hard on yourself, don’t think that will go unnoticed by your kids. We internalize everything. We’re energetic creatures, and we both emit and absorb energy wherever we go. If your mother was always dieting and scrunching up her face when she looked at herself in the mirror, even if she always told you you were beautiful, don’t be surprised if you have body-image issues. If you were taught that people who didn’t believe the same things your family believed were wrong or not to be trusted, you’re going to have some unlearning to do.
The outside might look different. And I mean this for all of us. We may be male or female, short or tall, thin or stocky, dark or light. We may believe in one god, many gods, or no god at all. We may believe in a continuation of consciousness, or we may believe we’re worm food when it all ends. We may be rich, or we may struggle to put food on the table. The bottom line is that we all deal with certain parameters. We have a finite amount of time in the body we’re in. We have the capacity to love people wildly, openly, with everything we’ve got. We have our attachments, our fears, our dreams, our heartbreaks, our nights when we cry ourselves to sleep, or wonder what we’re doing here, or flail about trying to find our place in the world. The more we look for the vulnerability behind the mask, the kid underneath the grown-up, the similarities instead of the differences, the kinder we become. And the world could really use that right about now.
Yes, there are some people who’ve closed their hearts and fed their hatred, and are so far off the grid, there’s not much hope for any kind of epiphany at this point. But that’s a tiny percentage of human beings on planet earth. The vast majority of people recognize that an us versus them mentality isn’t getting the job done. It isn’t creating a world that’s safe for us, or for our children. And it also doesn’t have to be this way. Examine your thoughts, your words and your actions. Maybe you’re already operating from a place of love the vast majority of the time, but maybe you’re still struggling with this. Start with your own internal dialogue. Since there’s no (good) escape from the voice in your head, start to starve a loud inner critic if you have one. You don’t have to believe everything you think. Sometimes our thoughts about ourselves are so violent, so unforgiving, so relentless, it’s a wonder we can get out of bed in the morning. And if you’re that hard on yourself, I guarantee you’re hard on other people, too. Perhaps not as harsh as you are with yourself, but whatever we have within us is what we spread. Start there. It might seem like a small thing, but if everyone worked on creating a peaceful and loving world within themselves, the whole landscape around us would change. If you’re in the habit of saying things like, “I’m such an idiot” when you make a mistake, shift that thought to something like, “I’m human and I make mistakes sometimes, and that’s okay, and very normal. Let me take a deep breath and see what I can do.” Find a nickname for yourself that makes you smile, like, “Chief”, or, “Sport”, or “Tiger”, and whenever you feel that self-loathing come up, catch yourself, with an, “Okay, Sport, that didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but it’s no big deal.” What I’m trying to say is that you really want an inner voice that roots you on, not one that tears you down. May we all send good thoughts and love when we hear an ambulance go by. May we all care about each other more, and judge each other less. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings be happy. Sending you love, Ally Hamilton
Our time and energy are our most precious gifts to give, and they’re also finite. Sometimes it’s really a practice in itself to direct your energy toward thoughts that strengthen you, rather than those that weaken you. It’s easy to get caught up, or snagged on someone else’s thoughtless comment or careless act, to become embroiled in other people’s dramas, or to allow yourself to spin over mistakes you’ve made. Rejection creates this scenario for many people, as does feeling disrespected, unseen, unheard, ignored, excluded, or harshly judged. We can lose hours, days, weeks obsessing over how other people feel about us, when our time would have been better spent getting right with ourselves.
Human beings are complex. We all have our interior worlds, our inner dialogues; in many ways, being human requires our ability to deal with solitude. Obviously, we can reach out. We can seek connection, love, joy, shared experiences. We can uncover our gifts and spread them in whatever ways are available to us. But if you aren’t happy on the inside, no person and no thing can fix that for you. Often, we’re so focused on the externals, we neglect to do the work that would really bring us peace and joy. So many people spend the large majority of their lives trying to prove that they’re here and they’re worthwhile by pointing to things outside themselves. A lot of people have their identities wrapped up in what they do and what they have. If your self-esteem is determined by factors outside your control, you can see how this leads to trouble.
It’s not what we have, it’s what we give. And it doesn’t have to be grandiose. You can change a person’s day by really taking them in, even just for a moment. You can smile at a stranger, hold open a door, allow someone to merge in traffic. These are small things, but they have a huge effect. When we move through the world and people are kind and considerate, it really fills us with a sense of hope and well-being. But having said that, if someone cuts us off in traffic, we don’t want to let that experience rob us of our own peace. There’s no need to let a stranger raise your blood pressure.
Sometimes we have to draw a line with someone. Maybe you have people in your life who struggle, and as a result they can be inconsiderate or self-absorbed or sometimes thoughtless. The truth is, we can all display these tendencies from time to time, and we probably will. Sometimes we have a day or a week, or many years when we feel victimized or angry or lost. And we lash out because we’re unhappy and we can’t figure out how to fix it. We point fingers and come up with our reasons, and make it about other people or circumstances. And as we flail and rage about, we unintentionally hurt those around us. Some people live their whole lives this way. You are certainly free to direct your time and energy toward making other people responsible for your lack of peace, but I don’t recommend it. No one is going to save you, but you. We each have to do our own work, and for most of us, that gives us plenty to do. Anne Lamott has this great phrase for those who suffer from, “Good Ideas for Other People’s Disease”. Isn’t that awesome? Aren’t we all great at figuring out what other people should do to get it together?
You can’t control people or circumstances, nor do you want to try. The more you let go and practice acceptance (which doesn’t mean you allow yourself to be disrespected or abused), the less you suffer. The more you seek to create steadiness and peace inside yourself, the better off you’ll handle the inevitable and ceaseless ups and downs of life. The more you direct your mind to the present moment, the more peace you’ll find. Breathing deeply feels good. Being awake and aware feels good. Being enraged or depressed or anxious for extended periods of time, obviously does not feel good. Are heartbreaking things going to happen? Yes. To some degree or another we’re all going to face loss, grief, confusion, shame, guilt, envy, jealousy, fear and rage. We’re all going to lose people. We’re all going to have to move and shift with changing circumstance, and sometimes we’ll be grieving, mourning, heartbroken and listless, and those feelings will be understandable and appropriate. This is when you hope you have a spiritual practice that’s going to be there for you, along with the people in your life whom you love. This is the dance. You can fight it. Of course we’d all like to be able to count on things. But the only thing we can truly count on is that everything is always changing.
Think carefully about where you’re sharing those gifts of time and energy. You’re not going to save other people, so I wouldn’t squander your resources there. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to find help or support for those in need, but it does mean you don’t try to manage someone else’s path. Usually when we do that, it’s because we’re avoiding our own. Things that will surely bring you down—gossip, violent thoughts or actions, self-loathing, clinging to your anger. Things that will absolutely lift you up- remembering all the good that’s present in your life right now. Taking ownership of your story, and righting the ship if necessary. Doing the work to heal, and seeking out whatever tools you need to help you with that endeavor. Reaching out when you need help, and offering it when you’re in a position to give it. Trying to help those you love be their best selves by celebrating them and encouraging them when times are tough. Doing that for strangers, too. These are all great uses of your time and energy, and the beautiful thing is, the more you direct your energy toward helping others, the more you’ll feel meaning and purpose and fulfillment in your own life. Good for you, good for everyone else. Sending you love, Ally Hamilton
Everything worth doing involves sacrifice. If you have a dream, you’re going to have to work if you want to see it come to fruition. And any choice we make involves loss. When we choose one path, we walk away from another. Eventually, you have to figure out what’s important to you, and where you want to direct your time and energy.
People agonize over this stuff. They pick something, and then they wonder if they made the right choice. They look back over their shoulders, or they look ahead to see if something better is on the horizon that they’re now going to miss. Single people do this. They’re single for years, lamenting the loneliness and lack of a partner, of someone who sees them and understands them and is there for them, and then they meet someone, and six months later they’re agonizing over the loss of their freedom. Freedom to do what? Sit home on a Saturday night binge-watching “Orange is the New Black”? Married people do it, too. They choose commitment, and then envy their single friends out at the clubs. Yes, when we make a choice, we agree to not choose something else. This is why it’s called a “choice”.
And as the saying goes, “the grass is always greener on the other side”, but of course I’m talking about, “the grass is always greener where you water it”. We can drive ourselves nuts with this stuff. But the truth is, if you made a decision, you made it for a reason. If that reason doesn’t hold true anymore, or you doubt its validity, or it hasn’t played out the way you thought it would, then you’ll have to make some other choices, and hopefully you do that with serious deliberation, and maybe some support. We’re never done, we’re always in process. And you can choose to have a good attitude about that, or not. Either way, the reality is the same. I’m not saying anything is fair game. Obviously we want to make choices carefully, especially where they involve other people. You never want to be reckless with another person’s tender heart. If you’ve made a mess, you have to do your best to clean it up with honesty and compassion. But most people would not want you to live a lie. Most people would not ask you to choose pity or guilt over what’s true in your heart. And almost everyone I know would choose honest communication over betrayal.
What I’m saying is that you’ll never give your choices room to grow and blossom if you spend all your energy looking over your shoulder. Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated into choosing things you don’t want. And by the same token, when you say you want something, mean it. Don’t make your decisions someone else’s fault. We spend way too much time blaming circumstances and other people for our own unhappiness. Blame keeps you stuck. It’s liberating to take responsibility for your life and your choices, to take ownership of the whole thing. You’re going to make unfortunate choices sometimes. Another word for those is “mistakes”. That’s part of being human, it’s how we grow. If you don’t ever choose anything, your paths will be chosen for you. You’ll meet other strong-willed people, and they’ll tell you what they want you to want, and what they think you should do, but that’s not the same thing as living your life. That’s living someone else’s life. That’s becoming part of someone else’s story. Yes, we can co-create a story with another person in a healthy and loving way. But that’s when two people come together out of choice. You’re not a leaf on the wind. You’re a particular human being with your own intrinsic gifts to share. Choose wisely. Sending you love, Ally Hamilton
Sometimes I write about forgiveness and people get very upset. I recognize there are some things we want to put into the category of unforgivable, so let me clarify what I mean when I say I believe forgiveness is freeing and vital if you want to be at peace. I am not talking about deciding that something traumatic or hurtful that happened in your past is now okay with you. I’m not talking about picking up the phone or sending an email to a person who betrayed you, and telling them it’s water under the bridge. You don’t have to tell anyone. You don’t have to speak to the person, or see them ever again. But if you’re holding on to anger, they’re still hurting you, and that’s my point.
When we’re enraged with someone, we’re carrying them around inside our heads and our hearts. Because whatever happened is in the past, but in order for us to stay angry, we have to keep thinking about it, and fueling that flame. And rage is a poor constant companion. It seeps into everything. It makes it hard for us to be intimate, to trust other people, to let our guard down, because to do that, you have to be vulnerable, but to hold onto rage, you have to be tough. And staying angry requires constant vigilance; it’s exhausting. We end up depleting our energy on that, when we could be spending it on opening to love, which feels so much better.
How do you forgive someone who stole any chance you had at a normal, innocent childhood, for example? That’s a difficult one, right? Because something was taken from you, and you can never have it back. You can never know what it would have been like to be in Kindergarten feeling safe and secure. You can never know how it might have felt if you’d been able to relate to kids your age, not just in Kindergarten, but in elementary school, junior high, high school, college. It turns out not having a childhood affects you for your whole life. So how do you forgive that? You can re-parent yourself. That little kid who was scared and confused and hurt and alienated is still available to you, and you already know that. If you’re an adult, you aren’t powerless anymore, and it’s never too late to heal. Maybe you get yourself some help, some support. In fact, I’d highly recommend you do that.
Healing takes dedication, time, energy, and a willingness to lean into your pain. If you refuse to work with your issues, don’t expect them to get tired and go away. They’ll just keep showing up for you in every area of your life. They’ll be bubbling right underneath the surface of everything you say and do. If you face your fears, your rage, your loss, your grief, if you allow yourself to mourn, you’ll find you don’t mourn forever. The deep feelings arise, and they hurt, and you cry and you feel raw and maybe some days you feel hopeless or alone or scared, but you hang on. And eventually the heat and the power and the strength of all that old stuff starts to subside, and you can loosen your grip and start to breathe again, maybe for the first time in a very long time.
It’s just, if you’re using a ton of energy to stay angry, you’re probably not going to have enough left to heal. Blame keeps us stuck. It places our ability to be happy in someone else’s hands. Or in events over which we had, and have, no control. The past can’t be rewritten; whatever happened, happened. Some things shape us, but the only thing that defines you is what you do about what you’ve been given. How you proceed. How you live your life, and show up for yourself, and the people you love, and the people you don’t even know. Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself. It has very little to do with anyone else.
Sometimes people balk at the word forgiveness, so let me say this. If you’re living your life and you’re happy and you don’t feel like you’re carrying someone who betrayed you within your heart, then I think you’re good to go. You don’t have to call that forgiveness, but that’s what it is in my book. You are not a prisoner of another person’s actions or inactions; you’re liberated.
And the same goes for people who enter our lives later in life. Maybe you had an idyllic childhood, but something unthinkable happened later. This is your life. You get to decide how much energy you’re going to spend looking back. If you work on it enough, you can witness your experience. You can examine your thinking. You can choose one thought over another. And there’s so much power in that. Choose the thoughts that strengthen you. Feed the love. Let the rest of it go, as much as you can. It doesn’t have to fit into a neat little box. You certainly don’t have to be grateful for everything that’s ever happened to you. Just grow from your pain. Allow it to soften you and make you more insightful and compassionate, and likely to reach out to other people in pain. That way, at least, some beauty grows from it. Learn to love yourself as you are right now, and understand, you wouldn’t be you without every event that’s ever befallen you. Remind yourself that you’re strong, and unhook your journey from someone else’s past behavior. That’s their journey, it isn’t yours. Sending you love, and a huge hug, Ally Hamilton