To make peace.
This could have at least two meanings. It could mean to take action — even fight — to create space for peace. Many diplomats frame war this way. To make peace can also mean to fully accept some circumstance.
I watched a movie the other day, recommended by my New York cousin, Barbie. It’s called “Penguin Bloom,” inspired by the true story of a woman who had the perfect life of adventure, love, and a strong and playful family bond. Careful not to give too much away, I’ll abbreviate: Our heroine takes a bad fall, becomes paralyzed from the waist down, and struggles to find a reason to keep living. Yes, she has her children, but in her refusal to accept her condition, she can’t be a mother to them. She’s consumed by her losses and has no reserves to bolster or celebrate others. Before she can move on to find purpose, satisfaction, and meaning in life again, she must make peace with her sudden state of immobility and physical helplessness. A tall order, but it wouldn’t be a true-life story that reached the screen if she didn’t triumph. It’s a powerful film.
How many of us never accept some unavoidable circumstance, and are therefore barred from moving on to fully expressing ourselves — and then modeling this ability to overcome and transform? What fullness of life is being sacrificed when I cling to what was?
The life raft is not in the past.
I realized as I watched the movie unfold that the same holds true in much less dramatic hurdles life throws in our paths. Going way back, I remember that as much as I have always and still do adore my two children, I often felt like my hands were tied behind my back when they were little. They came late in my life and were a conscious and joyful choice, but I wasn’t used to trying to sweep the floor or make coffee with someone perched on my hip. I remember railing, “Will I EVER get to go to the bathroom alone?” It was necessary for me to make peace with these feelings of frustration and impatience before I could release them, and be a (mostly) loving and nurturing parent. The alternative was soldering these lower emotions to my guilt about them — and closing off the path to becoming a better guardian and guide to my children.
Now, at 72, I still sometimes sigh with envy when a runner passes on the trail. Running and running fast and far was so much a part of my identity for so many years that I’m still making peace with joints that refuse to be jarred to that degree. When I prevail in this wrestling match with regret, then the extreme beauty of the natural world and all the miraculous goodness in my life floods back in. In the place of envy and a sense of loss, I move on to gratitude that I’m strong enough to hike for a few miles alongside someone I love beyond words.
I ask myself, what else do I need to make peace with — in order to move on, progress, evolve, lighten someone else’s burden?
Before I attempt to answer that question, there’s a distinction to note. There are life circumstances that we should never make peace with. Physical or emotional abuse, a dead-beat spouse or dad, a narcissistic “friend,” physical limitations that are correctable — all these come to mind. Sometimes, it’s not accept — so that I can move on. Rather, it’s accept-that-this-is-unacceptable — so that I can move on!
Our paraplegic movie heroine was not a victim of her own choices. Conversely, I can recall feeling trapped in a toxic relationship, and I have to admit that I made a choice to engage in and sustain this dysfunctional relationship for far too long. I’ve come to understand that whether or not I own a degree of responsibility for a circumstance I find limiting, the responsibility to choose a path forward is always mine.
In short, there’s a door to a better life which will only appear once I accept an immutable reality. In that way, stepping through the door to get away from a toxic situation (giving notice to a verbally abusive boss perhaps) is no different than stepping into new possibilities when an old familiar path has hit a dead-end (mourning the loss of a loved one and learning to love life again).
It comes down to this, make peace with — accept — the need for change. And let go of what was — whether it was tragic or euphoric, suppressive or freeing. In both sets of circumstances — things that were so good I resist moving on or things that were so awful that I feel paralyzed — an open door to my best life appears once I accept and then lean into that first step.
It’s one thing to know that it’s time to walk through that door and forge a new path, it’s quite another to let go of the old map, choose a new destination and take the first step.
It’s far easier to lament the loss or disappointments of the old path and manufacture reasons why the new one is locked to you. Stuck is never a good place to be.
I’ll end with a story about my friend, Francis Kahura. A couple of years ago, my wonderful husband and I were in a roll-over accident. We are eternally grateful that we miraculously walked away virtually unscathed. However, having been trapped in the upside-down smashed-in cab of our truck for the longest 20 minutes of my life (believing incorrectly, that diesel, like gasoline, would inevitably burst into flame), I found that whenever someone merged from the right, a giant invisible hand would grab my heart — hard! I was describing this to Francis, saying I considered myself a courageous person and I was having trouble accepting this lingering panic. Here were his words, “Oh no, Susan, first you must accept the fear — and only then will it start to go away.”
I‘m still astounded that after many months of struggling with and not accepting my PTSD, I began to acknowledge the fear, breathe through it, and it gradually began to dissipate. I still tense up in traffic sometimes, but only sometimes, and the fear doesn’t grab my heart anymore.
This is a lesson I will never forget. Acceptance comes before change. No wonder it’s the first step in every 12 step program.
Making peace in this sense is not a fight, but it’s not a surrender either. It’s more a declaration of independence.
It’s asking the question: “Where’s my path forward to a life of great rewards and much greater impact?”
WE ARE CONSTRUCTED OF WHAT WE OVERCOME.