What My Father-in-Law Taught Me About Getting Out of the Way

We flew out to San Jose this past weekend for Ken’s dad’s memorial service, and ever since, I’ve been thinking about how nice it was.  Yeah, I know—that’s not something you usually hear about a service.  But this one was much lighter and more life-affirming than any other funeral I’d ever attended, and it really had an impact on me.  It also made me thankful as hell, considering the kids were in attendance.

So now let me make a crazy generalization and guess that this had something to do with the service being Buddhist.

At one point, the reverend gave a short sermon suggesting how we could best approach my father-in-law’s death.  Just because this beloved person in our life had died, he said, it didn’t mean that our relationship was done, or over.  On the contrary, it was simply changing.  And to get stuck in the past and hold on to that fixed memory of my father-in-law would be a great disservice both to him and to my relationship with him.  The only constant in life, he reminded us, is change.  And death is but another change.  The love that characterized this relationship was still there—it had just taken on another form.

Now, if that’s not the best sermon I’ve ever heard at a funeral/memorial, I don’t know what is.

His speech really got me thinking about how Ken’s dad had approached his own death. He’d lived a good life, he told me during one of our visits last spring, and he wasn’t afraid to go.  He wasn’t afraid of death.

Talk about dignity.  Talk about acceptance.

My own father, when he died, went kicking and screaming, which was probably why the last year of his life was so awful and drawn out. Ken’s dad, by contrast, went quickly.  He was still in pain, of course, but he had accepted his death.  I can’t underestimate the difference.

The more I learn about Ken’s dad, the more I understand what a large role acceptance played in his life.  I mean, hell, I don’t know many people who’ve lived through a horrific war, then come out of it by choosing to look at the bright side of life.  Viktor Frankl, sure.  But regular, everyday people?  Most of the people I’ve known who’ve been touched by war remain scarred by bitterness.

Ken’s dad not only survived the front lines of WWII, but he chose to become a life-affirming doctor because of it.  An ob/gyn, no less.  If that’s not working with the hand you’ve been dealt, I don’t know what is.

All of which reminds me of an Akido principle I’ve been trying to follow for some years now.  If you’re a martial arts follower, excuse my simplified Anglo (Serbo-Anglican?) explanation here.  I wish I could say I studied Akido for more than a handful of classes, but at least I lasted long enough to learn one of the most profound lessons of my life.  Here it is:

When someone (life?) is coming at you, the worst thing you can do is hold up your arm and try and to block or fight that person.  (Which, by the way, is what most of us do.) If you do, you and your attacker will remain locked in a battle of wills, with all of your energy going into fighting that other person.

Then what?  Nothing.  Unless you’re super-strong, you’ll remain stuck, as will the other person.  Both of you blocked, your energy locked into a battle which neither one of you is able to win.

The good news is that there’s another way.  And it’s all about learning how to use your energy and life’s (I mean your attacker’s) energy to your benefit.

Once again, imagine that someone’s coming at you.  Instead of putting your arm out to fight or block that person, just step aside.  That’s right.  All you have to do is get out of the way.

So, now what happened?  The other person (or challenge, obstacle, insert whatever word fits here) has just fallen on their face.  And since you haven’t exerted yourself by trying to stop or block that person, you’re free to go and use all that good energy for something else.  Like living.

Now, this is a huge lesson for an Aries like me who insists on ramming her stubborn, battle-scarred head into each and every wall that comes my way.  Because it feels so good!  Oh, ho ho!  If only I were kidding.  Sadly, I seem to have a genetic predisposition for getting myself into some of the worst tangles out there.  But I’m working on it.

Plus, everything I’ve learned from my father-in-law these past few weeks is starting to finally seep through my thick skull.  And it’s all asking me to stand aside and notice that there’s another way of being.  An entirely new way of being free.

If you don’t believe me, just look at your children.  What happens when you try to block them?  Well, shit.  When I try to block (ahem, control) my kids, they get uppity as hell, and suddenly, we’re embroiled in a major battle over something stupid, like a bottle of Gatorade.

Seriously?  I’m wasting my life energy on Gatorade?

But to my kids, at least, it’s not a battle over Gatorade—it’s a battle over freedom.  Which, it seems to me, is something we’re all searching for on some level or another.  The freedom to be ourselves, the freedom to express ourselves, the freedom to pursue a life we love, to go after the job we want, to be with the person we love.  The freedom to just be.

So why do we make it so difficult?

This weekend, my father-in-law taught me that there’s a better way.  We don’t (gasp) actually have to waste 96% of our lives fighting.  Sometimes all we have to do is let go.

And you know what?  You might not even have to accept what’s going on in your life. Maybe, just maybe, all you need to do is get out of the way.

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