Machines That Grind Wonder

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We have this recurring nightmare in my house where my wife and I are sitting in the kitchen after putting the kids to bed. After 20 minutes of silence upstairs, just as our withered and awkward adult personalities are again beginning to emerge, we hear a crackle from the baby video monitor which means someone is physically handling the microphone in my daughter’s room. We sink into our stools and resign ourselves to the punishment ahead. My 2 ½-year-old has rocked her wheeled crib across the room and is now cupping the baby monitor in her hands like an evil sorceress. Her nose and mouth fill the small video screen in the kitchen as she asks, brightly, “Can I wake up now?”

When I brought up these nighttime antics with my daughter’s pediatrician, the doctor asked an obvious question: had there been any changes recently that might be disrupting her routine?

I sat back and had to think. Okay, a few I guess: we moved out of New York City, into a 200-year-old house, and are currently sleeping all in one room — bunkhouse style — awaiting renovations. Plus, there was the new childcare, those several months of intense stress as we decided whether we could/should buy the house, fretted through the mortgage process, packed and unpacked 60+ moving crates, and arrived up here within a week of the school year.

But I had managed to get with the program and adapt/repress, why couldn’t she?

For an extreme example of what happens when you can’t make even the smallest concession of truth, consider the former Press Secretaries Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Sean Spicer (an alum from my college!). They had to eat garbage and act like it was delicious. Spicer’s trademark anger and defensiveness to reporters was understandable since their facts threatened the unblemished version of events he was offering.

After the visit to the pediatrician, I realized that I had bonded part of my identity to a specific outcome. I’ve been carrying the boulder that our move to the Hudson Valley is an unqualified success. Couldn’t be happier, thank you very much!

When my wife bemoans the scarcity of farmer’s markets or car culture, I get a little riled. How dare she deviate from the “script” — that We Did the Right Thing and Are Definitely Much Happier Here.

When we become so invested in a narrow outcome — i.e. total success, zero setbacks and disappointments — we end up in a constant struggle. Because we have so much to defend and maintain about ourselves, we can’t say something sucks when it sucks. We can’t say we’re going through a hard time because that feels like failure, as if it’s our fault we couldn’t bend the world to our will.

There’s a whole comedic trope (the entire National Lampoon’sfranchise) of fathers who can’t admit when a vacation or a holiday is a disaster. As chaos and dysfunction erupt around them, they white-knuckle the steering wheel and declare, “We’re having fun, God dammit!

We become like machines designed to grind wonder into a fine powder because wonder and awe are incompatible with constantly pushing to be perfect. Wonder is a gap, a suspension in our interminable thinking that gets filled by something outside of us. A scene, a gesture of kindness, a scrappy sparrow. Wonder is fleeting and ephemeral. It doesn’t boost our standing in any way (although a really sweet photo might get us a few more Instagram followers).

The more we stake our identity and self-worth on a specific goal — getting promoted or fixing your back pain — the narrower life gets. I’ve seen it in myself and many others that in the pursuit of greater health or less pain, we stop living until we’re ‘well.’ We postpone joy, pull away from others, and quietly nurture our shame.

What I was forgetting, glossing over, in the doctor’s office is that it’s been tough up here. I’m tired of sleeping in a communal bedroom and having to duck my head every time I go up the hundred plus-year-old stairs. Plus, I’ve sprained my ankle (twice!).

My seven-year-old has a more instructive approach to processing our move. She tells me she misses Brooklyn but also gleefully jumps into leaf piles in our yard. She’s made friends at school andmisses her old ones. She can hold two things in her mind at once. She is capable of what the poet John Keats described as, “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…”

* * *

How uncomfortable it is to sit, as the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck once said, on “the icy couch” of uncertainty. It never quite gets comfortable, but we can learn to relax into it nonetheless. We often think the present moment is uncomfortable because we lack confidence or decisiveness. But according to Beck, the present moment by naturetends to rub us the wrong way because our ego is always trying to position us outside the stream of constant change.

Mindfulness practices re-teach us to possess negative capability, to exist in the space in-between conclusions. You could try (by not trying) right now. Just breathe a few times into your body without having to feel “spiritual” or peace. With each breath you certify that, yes, this is my experience right now.

It might include angst or disappointment or jaw tension. That’s okay; none of us have transcended human suffering. And yet, we are alive.

This insight or feeling is not an enduring moment that will last forever. Those things don’t exist — even mountains wear down. And we aren’t mountains, even fathers.


Stay tuned for more info about my upcoming Hudson Valley weekend retreat at Holy Cross Monasteryfrom Friday, June 26-June 28!

Meditation + Alexander Technique teacher. Author of “Don’t Get Better,” forthcoming guide to sanity, humor, and wisdom during illness.

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