Good Lord, my mind is a sieve these days. I am misplacing bills and forgetting to turn in permission slips and–worse!–mistaking one person for another even though I know them both perfectly well. I like to joke about my rapidly advancing age, though my gently contrarian husband predictably replies: You’re hardly elderly. My friends commiserate and say they have the same problem, they say, we just have too much to do, too many balls in the air. That’s probably true. I mean we’re in the thick of it – working full time, active kids at home, trying to keep the artistic flame burning in some small way.
But I’m not sure that’s the absolute source of my forgetfulness. I don’t think it’s only that I have too much to do. I suspect it may be that my time—my life really—is too fragmented, that the things I have to do are so separate from one another that they literally block each other out. So when I am working on a project for work, my mind completely shutters off the publication agreement I am a month overdue in submitting. When I am immersed in the world of a poem, I just cannot remember that we have no turkey in fridge so the children will be eating hamburger buns and strawberry jam for lunch tomorrow. And when I am on an overnight field trip with a group of sixth graders, I space the conference call I was supposed to squeeze in between the boat ride and lunch on the docks. It’s like that for me right now – the worlds are so segmented and so completely unto themselves, it’s as if the other worlds cease to exist. But it’s worse when I actually do try to keep all these identities in mind at the same time, leaping from one flare up to the next, never settling into sustained focus and forgetting yet more things.
I was thinking about these feeling, this sense of chronic fragmentation, when I listened to a podcast of Krista Tippett’s interview of Brené Brown earlier this week. Brené Brown, a research faculty member at University of Houston, became a social media phenom a couple of years ago when her TEDx talk “Listening to Shame” went viral. Last time I checked, it had been viewed over 4 million times. Clearly, there’s something about shame we want—or need— to listen to.
But on this particular episode of On Being, Brown was talking about the power of vulnerability, a topic she has done another TED Talk about. Her thesis is that in order to live what she calls a “wholehearted” life, it is essential to embrace vulnerability. She argues that the people who most fully inhabit their lives are those whose sense of worthiness—worthiness to be loved, respected, beheld—is not dependent on what they achieve or how many tasks they accomplish. As she put it in another interview: “There comes a time when we just get tired of those Ps – proving, pleasing, perfecting, performing – and it normally happens between 35 and 55.”
But she also said something like this: “Your ability to live wholeheartedly is directly proportional to your willingness to tolerate the risk for heartbreak.” Or something very close to that. But her point was that the biggest barrier to wholeheartedness is fear of heartbreak. I’m sure that’s true. It makes sense to me – you can’t throw yourself into the things that really matter to you while you are spending most of your energy protecting yourself from failure and disappointment. If you announce and pursue your deepest dreams, you are setting yourself up for the possibility of failure, of humiliation, of heartbreak.
But for me, in the midst of my mid-life forgetfulness, her talk triggered something else. Maybe for me the barrier to living wholeheartedly is not so much fear of a broken heart as it is my practice of living with a scattered heart. It is not the spectacular shatter of glass on concrete, it is blowing a dandelion into the wind. My mind, my attention, my heart blows in so many directions that the flow and focus—and hopefully short-term memory—that comes with wholeheartedness eludes me.
That’s an interesting thesis, I thought. I wonder what it means. For sure it means that I do not completely inhabit my life in the way that Brown’s wholehearted study subjects did. In my family, they treat it as a pathology, as an immutable character trait —That’s just Wendy. She’s always been like that. She was overcommitted in kindergarten. But I guess for the first time, I wonder why. Why do I scatter my energies and my affections to the four winds?
Truth be told, I don’t think the reasons are that different from those who are guarding themselves against heartbreak. It plays out a little differently, but the impulse is the same. When guarding our hearts against shatter, we think I will be destroyed if I am hurt, if I fail. But for me, with my scattered heart, I think I have to do everything myself, that it is a deep failure to admit that some things (many things!) are best left to others. Somewhere along the line, I melded effort and virtue. I married striving and worthiness. If I stop moving, it will prove that I am a lazy person, an unworthy person.
It’s that simple really. I scatter my heart because the virtue of doing is more important than the wholeness of being. Well, that’s screwed up. And besides, it’s making me forget things. And plus I’m not doing a very good job at any of the 10,000 tasks I have set up for myself. But I have put my shoulder to this wheel for a long time. I wonder what would happen if I just stopped. If I said I don’t have to try to be everything. At least not all at once. I wonder what would happen then.