Love Bravely by Embracing the “Both/And”

This past June I had the distinct privilege of delivering the commencement address for the two graduate programs that live at The Family Institute at Northwestern University– my home away from home for almost twenty years. In my remarks, I shared that a key ingredient in our emotional wellbeing is the ability to tolerate the inevitable “both/and” nature of being alive. Here’s a slightly shorter version of what I said. See what you think:

If we invited our graduates to become aware of the complexity within, they might find, sitting right next to their pride, some sadness about saying goodbye, some fear about the future, some regret about what remains undone, and some doubt about their readiness to enter the next phase. If we invited the loved ones to become aware of the complexity within, they might find, sitting right next to their pride, some sadness about the passage of time (many of you remember swaddling and bathing one of these graduates), some confusion about your graduate’s choice to enter this field, and maybe even some envy as you witness your graduate stepping into experiences that differ greatly from your own life journey.

Dialectics are those places where two seemingly opposite things are true at the very same time. “I am both excited and afraid…This moment is full of both joy and sadness.” Dialectics are around us, all the time, and they can be quite difficult to hold onto, downright slippery at times, especially on a day like today. Our graduates may need a gentle reminder that they are big enough and wide enough to hold to both their pride and their doubt. Family members are encouraged to be gentle with themselves as joy and envy compete for space within. Both/and. One does not destroy the other. Ever. One does not lessen the other. Ever.

In his book, Buddha’s Brain, psychologist Rick Hanson, states: “our brains are Teflon for the good and Velcro for the bad.” It turns out that our default setting, for reasons that are largely evolutionary in nature, is to hold more tightly to that which is negative and painful. Graduates, this means that rather than embracing the people who ARE here for you today, you are at some risk of thinking instead about those who ARE NOT here (the estranged father, the preoccupied sibling, the ex-girlfriend, the deceased grandparent). It also means that instead of savoring the golden moments of connection and pride that will happen over the course of today, you are at some risk of focusing on the moments when your family dynamics are right there in full view (when Mom wants to take another photo in front of another pretty tree, when Grandpa comments again on the long walk back to the car).

Honoring the knowledge that our default setting is to focus on the negative, affords us the opportunity to consciously choose to end the struggle with our own wishful thinking. As spiritual teacher, Byron Katie, says, “When I argue with reality, I lose, but only 100% of the time.” Today is exactly as it is, and I invite each and every one of us to look, all day long, for that which is plentiful, present, and here.

I invite you to be on the lookout for the both/and places within you. Accepting and embracing the fullness of you opens the door to accepting and embracing the fullness of those you love as well.