A few years ago, when I was a professor teaching full-time at the college level, I was handed a last-minute class after a professor was going to be out sick for the first month of the semester.
Predictably, thinking of me as more of a “sub” than a permanent fixture, the students were pretty awful. They rebelled against even the most basic of classroom structures, things that I never had issues with in my regularly scheduled classes–things like attendance. They questioned me on every paper topic, every grade. Some of them belligerently debated with me during class discussions, trying to find little ways to make me look stupid in front of the class.
By mid-term, the other professor wasn’t coming back, which meant that I was now the instructor of record for the class for the remaining months of the semester, and I was emotionally wasted and would cry the night before I had to go in to teach because these students–man, they were truly that bad. At the time, I badly needed the money and that was the only reason I had accepted the classes, but these students were so awful that I was close to bailing and suffering the consequences.
And then I did something–something that would forever alter how I would approach hard things in life and how I would practice courageous living.
Choosing the Gift
This was the choice I made: I asked myself what gift I might possibly be able to get out of teaching this class.
I was clear that the money was not the motivating factor; I was at the point where I’d rather have credit card debt than go in another day.
Then it occurred to me: I very much wanted to be a mother, and I knew that if I ever became a mom, there were going to be moments when my own kid was going to really, really challenge me.
These students, with their rudeness and manipulation, were offering me an excellent opportunity to practice unconditional love–that is, if I was willing to do the work of shifting my mindset and seeing it that way.
So, I tried it out. The next time a student was rude, I took a deep breath, and responded kindly (but firmly, and with healthy boundaries) from a place of what I believed to be unconditional love. I chose not to judge. I chose not to see the student as a “bad” person.
Not For Pollyanna
Prior to this experience, I had always considered such approaches to be the flighty, out of touch with reality responses of those “Pollyanna types.”
I was pretty convinced that people who chose to do this were Faker McFakersons who were trying to force themselves to believe something that they didn’t really believe.
To my amazement, however, something shifted within me when I made a conscious choice to look for what I sincerely wanted as a gift, in a situation that was hard.
It was one of those times where I realized just how powerful it was to consciously choose how I wanted to walk the world–all of the time spent learning and practicing the tools of courageous living were really paying off.
Now I am a momma. My daughter is a pretty typical newborn, which is to say: she cries when she wants something or is hungry or uncomfortable, and much of my day-to-day is based on how well her gastrointestinal system is functioning. If she is gassy or constipated, the work of attending to her is constant (and if not, blissfully, she alternates between feeding and sleeping and makes those cute little contended newborn grunts and coos).
There was a day, recently, that was epically awful. Hours upon hours of intermittent crying; I had consulted the doctor, who had determined what was up and that it was not serious, and I had administered a doctor-approved treatment and it was literally just a matter of waiting for that treatment to take effect.
Meaning: there was no quick fix, and she was feeling all of it, moment-to-moment, moment-to-moment.
Every time she started to cry again, I felt a wave of anxiety go through my body. “No, please, no,” I thought. After several hours, I felt I couldn’t stand to hear her cry, one more time (and I also felt guilty about that).
So I stopped, and I asked myself what I could do.
The one thing that I felt I could do was this: be with her through this. Use this as a space where she might be in discomfort, but she was not going to be alone in her discomfort.
In the moment that I aligned with that, a fierceness for my child arose: Momma was here, all the way.
Furthermore, I decided, I was not going to go into a mentality of thinking that my daughter should be feeling any differently than she was feeling. I was not going to stay in the place of, “Why isn’t she calming down, yet?” or “I wish she’d stop crying.”
I decided that I would practice total acceptance of her feelings, without stepping even a pinky toe into the land of thinking her feelings needed to be different than they were (all so that life would be more convenient for me).
In other words, acceptance.
That was a long, long, long day. When my husband got home from work, I handed the baby off to him for comfort and went up to my office and decompressed by consciously crying it out for ten minutes.
Then I went back downstairs and together, we worked as a team to help her through.
That sounds really deep and meaningful and Zen, as if I’ve got it all figured out and just blissfully practice presence all day, so I feel the need to add the qualifier that I am being taught this by life; I am deeply in the experience of it. I am hardly a master. I have days where life feels nothing like presence and I want to completely lose my shit, which for me would look like getting very irritable, depressed, or resentful towards everyone around me and very victim-ey in my thinking (“Life will always be this way; I’m trapped.”)
What I’m saying is that presence itself is an ongoing, moment-to-moment practice, not something that any of us can tick off of the to-do list as “figured out.”
It’s practicing presence to the concept of self-care. What do I need to do, to be available for my child? Sometimes I fail at this and look at the clock and realize that I skipped lunch and now I’m grumpy and flagging and impatient; time for some presence. Sometimes she goes down for a nap and I get busy trying to take care of the next thing; presence and self-care would call for ten slow, deep breaths.
It’s presence to her needs. Our daughter seems to be one of those babies who does really, really well in a quiet house with simple interaction–and she really, really hates a lot of stimulation. Yet of course, everyone wants to see the new baby, hold the new baby, wake the baby from a nap so that they can see her in action.
I learned the hard way that saying “yes” to the needs of others means that she’ll be grumpy and unable to sleep for hours afterwards–and I’ll be the one dealing with the aftermath of that. Presence means doing the hard work to say “no” to scenarios where there will be a lot of stimulation, but that’s what presence requires: prioritizing her needs over the needs of others.
That’s why I say that this is about a personal practice of presence:
- Am I willing to be with my child, no matter what she feels, without going into a mentality that she “should” feel differently?
- Am I willing to drop the Egoic “mother as martyr” image and make sure that I take the time to check in with myself and see what I need–water, nourishment, rest, help?
- Am I willing to step into doing what I sincerely think is best for her, even if it disappoints others, and risk judgement?
I often say that courage is not something you have; it’s something you choose to practice.
I believe that it’s courageous to be in the middle of something epically hard and decide to take just ten long, deep breaths. That might seem too simple to be a legitimately courageous choice, but the simplicity shouldn’t mask the courage.
Any time we choose to slow down, to choose the simple solution over the flashy one, and to go deeply into what love requires, we are practicing courage.
Deep breaths, nourishment, dropping the need to be “all of it” for someone else, releasing attachment to someone else’s feelings–all of these are practices in courage.
They aren’t as flashy as doing some big, epic thing that gets a lot of attention, but they make all the difference in the world in a real, meaningful way in your day-to-day.