The Power of Lightness: On Being Your Own Parachute
by Jennifer Paros
Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.
~ Guillaume Apollinaire
Recently, I met up with a large spider in my bathtub drain. I preferred showering alone but didn’t wish to squish, vacuum, or rinse away the visitor. So I fetched a cup and piece of paper, carefully made the transfer to the bathroom window, and set him free. As he fell to the grass below I realized how light he was, and it occurred to me it was as if he were his own parachute.
I’d like to be my own parachute. Though I cannot emulate the spider’s physical lightness, I do have the capability to go light in my thinking – to soften my mental and emotional landings. The way I focus serves me as a parachute or a weight. I can face a subject that might feel heavy and big - like a stymied book project or a rejection letter - without matching its intensity.
In an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s Master Class profiling Billy Bob Thornton, the actor/director reflected on the seemingly bigger, heavier subject of the death of his brother:
…I don’t want to forget what it felt like when he died because he deserves it – that’s how important he was to me. So if I have to suffer, if I have to be sad for the rest of my life, if I have to be lonely without him…then that’s the way I’ll honor him. I’ll be sad and melancholy about that forever and I know it and I accept it and I’ll live with it.
It seems untrue that one we loved and who once loved us would feel honored by us suffering; we always want those we love to be happy. But in mass consciousness, Thornton’s pain and perspective is common. Many have, inadvertently, equated suffering with caring. Often the implication is if we don’t suffer over others’ suffering we’re not compassionate; if we’re not sorrowful over someone’s death, we didn’t love them or aren’t respectful. Commonly we give ourselves little permission to feel happy because we think it’s somehow wrong or inappropriate to do so. Being unconditionally happy, though occasionally lauded, is often considered unrealistic, unintelligent, or callous.
It’s not natural or healthy to absorb the painful emotional climates of dysfunctional situations or unhappy people, but it is a normal, encouraged human habit. When we go light, we accept the seriousness but don’t become serious ourselves – not in our desire to stop something or in our desire to help. We accept the suffering as a reality but give it no deeper reality in our own minds. This is actually practical because the less entangled we are with thinking that’s painful, the freer we are to think something new and find solutions. Only in lightness can we offer perspective that comes from not being embroiled in a subject and its outcome.
In contrast to Billy Bob Thornton’s perception is Alice Hertz-Sommer’s point of view. Sommer was a concert pianist and a Holocaust survivor who lived to 110. The inspirational film The Lady in Number 6 is a documentary of her life and, most importantly, life vision. Alice Sommer’s focus was music, doing what she loved, and loving life. Though her husband died at Dachau and she witnessed the deaths of many others in the course of her internment, and later that of her grown son, she was her own parachute – with her attention remaining purposefully on the beauty of life.
I knew that even in this very difficult situation, there are beautiful moments. It doesn’t exist - anything in our world [that’s] only bad...Even the bad is beautiful - when you know where to look for it, it has to be.
~Alice Herz-Sommer’s life is testimony to the power of perspective informed by love.
This perspective can liberate us not only from the weight of potentially traumatic experiences but from painful thinking we have regarding anything: career, creative projects, relationships etc. We have all been given the capability to honor life by allowing love to flow; and love is happiness. No matter how seemingly heavy our experiences, they can always help us find our way back to focusing upon the inherent lightness of life and of who we really are - for we are all intended to land gently.
It depends on me whether life is good or not - on me, not on life, on me.
~ Alice Hertz-Sommer
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.