The concept of the genetically engineered “designer baby” has been in the news lately. Somehow it came up at dinner, and I asked the kids what they thought of the idea that parents could choose what kind of qualities their children would have before they were born. Megan reacted immediately: “They shouldn’t be able to change their baby because their baby has something different from any other baby in the world. They should just be happy about what’s special about that baby.”
Pretty good answer for an eight-year-old. It made me think about what’s special about my own children and what I would have missed if I had been able to design a child that matched me like a fine accessory. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen a daughter who takes twenty minutes to order chicken fingers in a restaurant, though the daughter I’ve got is teaching me patience. I wouldn’t have chosen a son who climbs every high stone wall he passes, though the son I’ve got is teaching me trust. I wouldn’t have chosen siblings who fight, but mediating their disputes is teaching me (slowly) to be more peaceful myself.
I believe that we’re meant to learn something from the experiences we’re given. Even if you don’t believe the “meant to” part, I’d argue we’re at least given the chance to learn something, whether we take it or not. But this is the sort of spiritual idea that can either be helpful or hurtful, depending on how it’s expressed. For example, it’s one thing for a sick person to say, “My illness was really a gift.” It’s another thing to tell a sick person they should be grateful for the learning opportunity they’ve received. I’ve heard this sort of preachiness from the semi-spiritual, and I don’t want to fall into it myself. Still, I can’t help wondering if my mother is learning anything about herself through these final weeks of her life, even though she's never been a very self-reflective person. If I were to suggest that there might be some kind of spiritual growth to be found in her suffering, I’m sure my mother would roll her eyes and say, “You can have it!” And who could blame her.
It’s much safer for me to ask what I’m
meant to learn from my mother’s time of suffering, which has also been difficult for me, though obviously only indirectly. The quick answer is that I’m not sure what I’m learning, though there seems to be something at work on me.
In the past few weeks, at least three people have asked me, “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” The most dramatic of these conversations happened on the train where I ran into a woman whom I had met once at a Quaker gathering. We remembered each other, and within seconds she had uncovered the central preoccupation of my life right now: my mother’s illness. After I reported what I’m doing to take care of myself, she suggested that I light a candle for one minute a day to help keep me in touch with my own inner Light (a Quaker term for the divine within). I said that was a good idea and that I could even do more than a minute a day. “No,” she said. “Just start with a minute. That focused practice can be very powerful.”
Of course I forgot to do it. More accurately, I remembered but just didn’t do it, until one day when I was walking past a local yoga center and decided to step into what used to be the bookstore. Now there is a shrine with Hindu symbols and an oil lamp burning. There was no one else in sight, and the space felt unusually quiet and peaceful, so I sat in front of the small flame and breathed. Then, after a few minutes, I got up and went on with my day, but with a little more focus.
I’d like to say I’ve remembered the candle every day since then, but the truth is I’ve skipped it most days, until this morning, when I woke up with a strong sense that I should take up this practice. I breathed deeply and remembered how tight my breathing was at the beginning of vacation this summer. I remembered how preoccupied my mind has been lately with my South Africa class, even during Quaker meeting for worship on Sunday. I remembered how for years I had half an hour of silence every morning and how, when Megan’s birth disrupted this practice, I told myself I’d get back to it when she was a little older. Well, now she’s older.
It’s not that I’m learning some surprising new insight about life and death, some pithy line I could sell to Hallmark. It’s just that I’m remembering the ancient bits of wisdom I’ve heard so many times: Show up. Be present. Breathe. Light a candle. Be grateful for the life I’ve been given, and see what it has to teach me.