This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
Well, it’s not like most of you won’t have seen this poem before. But originality isn’t my aim. The first line of this verse is constantly in my head, right now. It haunts me. Because it so perfectly reflects what I am feeling about this latest challenge in my life: this new journey through illness after so many decades blessed with fitness and good health. I feel fortunate that this has happened to me when I’m older. When I recognise, so very much more than I would have done had I been younger, that all such ‘guests’ really ARE just the teachers we need, and arrive at our door at just the time when we need them.
I’m a very short distance along what will be a months-long path, and I can’t begin to imagine all of the things I’m going to learn from this new guest. But the lessons have already been profound. The first of this guest’s gifts that I’d like to share with you is the memory of kindness. I never expected that. Kindness, in what so often seems like an impossibly unkind world. Since I took the difficult (for super-private old me) decision to ‘go public’ with news of my lymphoma and chemotherapy, the outpouring of kindness I’ve received in return has been overwhelming. Hundreds of supportive emails; thousands of heartfelt comments on Facebook and Instagram. My husband, a cynic, rolled his eyes at first and told me it’s easy to be nice to someone who has cancer. But there’s more than just ‘niceness’ behind the gifts that so many of you have given with your words. And it’s hard to tell you all how much it has mattered.
The world I inhabit – writing, teaching, the ‘public eye’ – really isn’t always quite so generous. There is support and community for sure, but there’s a surprising amount of envy (for what?) and competitiveness. There are cliques, exclusions, people who believe they ‘own’ entire fields of thought, endeavour and imagination. It’s the same everywhere, I know, but it seems to me to be all the more shocking when it happens among those of us who are supposed to be in service to something that’s just, simply, better than that. Such things, especially when they come from people who really are not ‘walking their talk’, make you cautious; they make you hold back. They harden your heart, and sometimes, they can break it. There is a woman who I once helped and whose work I facilitated, who has conducted a hate campaign against me now for the best part of eight years, for imagined sins that I think she knows in some honest part of her heart I didn’t ever commit. If she knew how much pain she’d caused, I think there’s also a softer part of that heart that might regret it. I dream of her regularly; in those dreams we are reconciled, and laugh together at our mutual foolishness. I wake up from them wanting to weep. The anger passed long ago; the hurt has passed now, too, wiped away by the kindness of others. Some things just can’t be reconciled. Reaching out didn’t help in the past; it’s not going to help now. Some things, we have to learn to let go. And still turn to look for kindness and heart elsewhere in the world. One unkindness doesn’t mean that the world is unkind. You know, that’s not nearly as obvious as it sounds. I ran the risk of believing the opposite to be true. I don’t believe that any more. Welcome, kindness. Welcome, lesson-wielding guest. I’m a very short distance along what will be a months-long path. ‘Every morning a new arrival.’ What on earth do you have in store for me next? For what ‘new delight’ are you clearing me out, now?
I have inhabited the Exile archetype all my life. (Note to reading astrologers: Moon in Aquarius!) I’m learning that it’s time to let go of my attachment to it, to shed the illusory cloak of protection it seems to offer. Because this life breaks us open. It’s supposed to. My favourite thing to say: we’re not here to be safe. We’re here to risk everything. And every breaking open strips away a protective shell, reveals another tender layer beneath – until, one day, there’s nothing left to strip away and we reach the core of who we are. I’m grateful that there are still these layers of me to strip away, grateful for the ongoing revelations and opportunities to grow, transform, learn. It’s not over yet. And I’m grateful, in spite of it all, for this rockiest of all rides.