When I was a child my family took yearly vacations to the Texas gulf coast at Port Aransas. This became a staple of each summer just before school set back in, as I’m sure it was for many families across Texas. Each year we would stay at the same low-cost cottages, spend our days getting sunburned on the beach, and our nights fishing at the pier. By far my favorite experiences were down at the pier learning how to fish, spending time as a family, and soaking in the warm salty breeze. By the age of 6, I had developed decent aptitude in reeling in piggy perch, crabs, gafftop, and the occasional sand trout. One evening the fishing was particularly poor, and after hours of no luck we decided to pack it in. In my mind, with each cast the waters were robbing me, one of my bait, but two of my fun and potential food. It was a personal affront. To show the gulf my discontent towards its obstinance and dereliction, I shook my fist at it and kicked in its general direction, my way of putting it on notice. Much to my chagrin, my slip-on shoe flew off my foot and into the dark insolent gulf. Bowing my head in defeat I walked back to the car, sans fish and with the hobbling gate of a one-shoed neophyte. How could this have happened?! I learned back then, and repeatedly throughout life, that you can’t force your will on the world. When you thumb your nose in defiance you often dig your hole deeper and double your suffering.
One could ask who was truly the stubborn one, the gulf with its eternal cycles and changing of the tides, or the child relating to that experience and refusing to accept the circumstances? Stopping now, have you ever asked yourself how you relate to challenging experiences, particularly unyielding ones? Do you ever feel victimized, neglected, imbittered? As humans we tend to relate in a way we are familiar with, like an interpersonal relationship. We get angry and frustrated at circumstances, but yelling at circumstances doesn’t hit a listening ear, so we either project that frustration on others or stew and get stuck with it. Sometimes we become sad and indignant, lamenting that we have been treated unfairly or have even been abandoned by grace. “I did everything I could, things should be better. This shouldn’t be happening to me”. We try to create distance and stonewall reality, often through a bottle or some distracting self-defeating vice. Any of these responses might create a response if they were aimed at another person, and they might change the circumstances, but it just doesn’t work that way with life. We are not well equipped to apply leverage to finality, but still, we try. As adults we all live with certain unyielding realities. The stubborn things we face are challenges such as financial strain, struggles with fertility, a failing marriage, or enduring bigotry and hate. Families can fall apart, careers stall-out, and sometimes death touches our lives unexpectedly and uninvited. And those are just some of the big ones. Sometimes also the lid refuses to come off the jar, the dog refuses to listen, traffic just won’t let up, and the person in front of you in line unfathomably doesn’t understand the basics of line rules and etiquette. Going back to that night at the pier, my family enjoyed an uproar of laughter at the fate of my shoe. My dad broke into an ad lib song he had made up about him, my older brother, and I as the three boys going fishing. The song had the prosody of a familiar nursery rhyme I can’t place. The fisher and men part a rapid staccato. “Once there were three fishermen…. once there were three fishermen…. fisher, fisher, men, men, men…. fisher, fisher, men, men, men”. I can still hear it now, the second verse, “The little one kicked his shoe in the sea…. the little one kicked his shoe in the sea…. kicked it kicked, in the sea…kicked it kicked it, in the sea”. There wasn’t a dry eye among us. Any anger I had was long gone. I love that memory. It is a shining example of why I love family and why family stands as one of my core values. It made not catching any fish, and adding insult to injury by loss of a shoe, such a minor detail in a larger picture. The experience was dynamic in anger, loss, humor, song, and togetherness. There is not one part that should be cut out. Life is dynamic and the good and bad all belong there. Though we will all face trials, and many of our own realities are likely to be painful and non-negotiable, there is always something bigger to lean into. For example, your savings are a wreck, but you’re still a great parent. Your job is miserable, but you have a really supportive partner. You have been diagnosed with cancer, but your family is rallying around you. You set a healthy boundary with a dysfunctional situation, but you lean into your integrity, self-care, and honesty. Leaning into what we value offers a changing of perspective that can bring with it healing. We can pair that with acceptance. Accepting life as it is, like, “yes this is happening, yes I can’t control it, yes I don’t like it, but no this isn’t everything”. Acceptance is a deliberate choice to not become exhausted swinging at fate. And it tends to work in flow with reality, unlike swinging, kicking, denying, or hiding. Although it is not easy, there is a space in acceptance to breath, to relate to reality in a helpful way, and an opportunity to choose to find value in what is already available to you. Good luck at your own life’s pier, and if you do find yourself kicking, remember to tie your shoes tight!