It’s always strange when things that are supposed to line up don’t: when the brilliant, highly verbal, well-adapted child refuses to potty-train until three-and-a-half; when the ten weeks of gradual and successful getting-back-into-running suddenly collapse in a new and constant bilateral knee pain; when remarkable patience and empathy in the face of all kinds of difficulty suddenly vanishes, leaving you astonished you ever behaved reasonably at all. But that seems to be the bear of this thing called life: nothing is linear. “Progress” is only ever incremental and more or less impossible to chart. We can’t move forward efficiently unless we pause at every point where someone needs a hug or an ice pack or a listening ear. It makes sense that we are this way; the part that doesn’t make sense is that we keep imagining our world works differently. We maintain hopes and expectations that have nothing to do with reality, and, still worse, that we KNOW have nothing to do with reality.
And so, we are advised, we try to let those go. We try to be here and now, accepting whatever is going on. And I love that approach, I really do. It opens me to all kinds of possibilities that I wouldn’t even NOTICE, otherwise. But somewhere deep inside me is always that other set of voices, asking “really? You’ve pooped on the potty before: you can do it again, no?” I hear those voices, I try to nod to them and thank them for their good intentions in supporting our boy’s efforts, and then I ask them to please keep it down for a little while. There’s someone else I need to listen to right now. And I wrap him up tight in my arms and try to hear.
The grand irony here, of course, is that many of these myths of progress find their homes in various kinds of training: to use the potty; to follow a physical therapy regimen; to keep a household manageable; to build a career. But those training arenas, those places of learning, are precisely where the myth of linear progress is most powerful and most damaging. What we need is training in mindfulness, training in training, if you will: the kind of training that will enable us to see where we fall down and give ourselves a gentle hand back up. We need to be reminded that we are always practicing and never perfect, that we all have accidents and make mistakes and that the trick is learning to accept it with grace. So as much as supporting a potty-learner can be a hassle (yes, I was the recipient of a full stream of urine down the center of my back today), it’s also a good chance to say out loud to someone else these most vital lessons: we listen to our selves and then try to do what seems best. We have courage if we are afraid. We understand that everyone tries new things, that this is a big part of what life is about. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t. But we keep on trying and that is what makes us who we are. Like the lambeosaurus in Jane Yolen’s “How do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food” — we try things. Like the deal I make with my students in every class I teach: you trust me enough to give the work your all and I will trust you enough to really hear what you desire and are capable of. This kind of testing, this exploration of trust, is one way we live out our faith in the world and in each other.