by cheri block sabraw
Five years have passed since I wrote How to Live a Real Life, the post that every year since has been read more than any other post I have ever written.
Upon revisiting this post this morning, I am surprised by the honesty in it.
First, for those of you who have not read it, I re-post:
by cheri block sabraw
For the first forty years of my life, I operated on automatic. Whatever needed to be accomplished, I did. Serious problems–financial ruin, death, divorce, betrayal, disease–only occurred in the rich literature I was teaching to my high school students and in the lives of other people.
I began to reflect about the meaning of life when lung cancer forced my father to drop out of the earthly life experience, but even then, I was busy, so I jumped back into my English saddle and cantered on my rocking horse. I continued to produce, to meet the needs of others before my own, to base my worth on my work and my appearance.
About five years ago, my handsome husband took a new exciting job far from our home, at the same time I was hitting menopause. I began worrying about how I looked, dressed, and appeared to him and to others. Thoughts that had never entered my mind, did. For the very first time, I realized that I was aging and would look different from the person that others had been attracted to for my figure, my face, and my enthusiasm. What would be left of the essential Cheri if her face looks old, her figure sags a bit, and her enthusiasm wanes on occasion? Would I still be attractive in a different way?
All of these questions terrified me.
Then my mother moved to town and had two strokes within one year, leaving her a changed person. My mother is alive but is not the same person I knew. This grief I shared but didn’t fully process.
Joe died last year and with his death, I lost a husky male friend who could help me understand what older men might be experiencing themselves. Our conversations were rich with authenticity.
My friends, many of them, moved away.
All of these events forced me into a deep contemplation.
Deep contemplation at the Rancho is possible because of the silence here.
I stopped talking so much and started listening to my inner voice.
I stopped jumping through every hoop in a childish need for approval.
I stopped trying to control the comings and goings of my family members.
I stopped cheerleading (after 40 years of it).
I started thinking of important things in life that had nothing to do with me, my happiness, my appearance, or my ego.
Then, I enrolled in a class at Stanford that helped me integrate many of these feelings into one paper entitled How to Live a Real Life. I got an A on that paper but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had gotten a B+.
I’m going to post the criteria I included in that paper before I post a few selections from it.
Criteria for living a real life: A cumulative list
- Reflect. We must be willing to examine the truth about our lives and to change, if necessary.
- Listen. We talk and interrupt. We miss messages sent from the self, from other human beings, and from Life (God, Divine Mind, Higher Power, The River).
- Simplify. We must be willing to clean out clutter from the external self—things and obligations, for example—that contribute to the preoccupation and distraction that camouflage the present moment.
- Move away from vanity. Modern culture worships youth, skin, breasts, hair, and clothing. While looking our best contributes to self-esteem, making physical appearance more important than spiritual and moral development is self-destructive.
- Let go of control. We can control very little in our lives. This realization and practice removes some of the stumbling blocks to being authentic such as anger, narcissism, and fear.
- Set others free. Although a by-product of #5, choosing to set our spouses, children, siblings, parents, and friends free from our controlling thoughts releases both the captive and captor.
- Accept loss. As we age, we lose people we love. Some of us lose parts of our lives that we naively hoped would last forever: physical health, sexual attractiveness, professional acknowledgement, personal freedom, and intellectual acuity.
- Practice intimacy. When we love and share our thoughts and fears, we create connection, that which we desire the most.
- Be better than you really are. We are imperfect but we can transcend this imperfection, if for only a moment.
- Become a Mensch. If we practice the first nine criteria, we will be able to devote our time to other people and their needs. We will be righteous, unselfish and honorable. Our nature will be to think of others before self.
If you would like to add or amend any of the criteria, let me know. I’m open.
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is perhaps one of the greatest plays ever written. I cried unabashedly when I read it as a high schooler and could never teach it without breaking down several times (this became an urban legend at the high school where I taught…).
It captures the essence of my list.
May your holidays be introspective. The cold winter is a perfect time to do this.
January 14, 2017
Reflect: Although nostalgia does wick into the watercolor of my life, I now try to experience memory as a positive force, not one that somehow makes me feel that something pleasurable has left and then replaced by a drab foreboding of the future.
Listen: I still talk more than I listen. Oddly, most of what I hear bores me. I find myself only listening to people who interest me. This type of selective listening is dangerous.
Simplify: My life is simpler than it was five years ago. I allotted an inordinate amount of space in an already busy brain to worrying about my mother and her daily life challenges. Now, every morning, I meditate on the memory of my magnificent mother and try to seize life as she would have, minus the worrying about whether I am meeting expectation.
Vanity: Aging is a steamroller. However. I still buy products…
Let Go of Control: Five years have brought tremendous progress to me in this category. I am much more content not trying to control the weather, how Europe is doing, how fast my roots grow out, or my husband’s work schedule. In these areas, I am finally free.
Set Others Free: A Buddhist truth: the more you grasp at something, the more it eludes you. I have found this, above all other truths, to be the most instructive. Just remember that the harder you squeeze the soap bar, the greater the chance it will fly out of your hand and on to your toe.
Accept Loss: Time strips us of so many things we desperately want to hold on to: the people with whom we so adored social engagement, the pets whose love and eyes brought us solace when human words were inadequate, the world as we hoped it would progress and myriad other expectations. I now accept these losses because I have to.
Practice Intimacy: Now, I am intimate with those people who want to me intimate with me.
Be Better Than You Really Are: This criterion is the most challenging for me now. I shall devote 2017 to being better than I really am.
Become a Mensch: Most thoughtful and reflective people know when a mensch is in their midst. A mensch-aura is subtle, humble, and quiet. The problem is in listening past the din in modern culture, the selfie in self, and the humility in bravado.
This year, I am going to read Our Town without crying.