When she learned that Dojo Wisdom was going to be reprinted, my colleague (and friend!) Polly Campbell asked me to write a guest post on her blog, Imperfect Spirituality. It appeared a few weeks ago, and I wanted to repost it here for readers who may not have had a chance to see it at Polly’s site.
Many years ago, I began training in martial arts. It was purely unintentional: I was on my way to the liquor store, and I looked up and I saw the sign: New Horizons Black Belt Academy of Taekwondo.
This was a literal sign as well as a figurative one; I had seen it before in one sense, and I had never seen it before in another. So I paused, and a whisper in my soul said, I want to be that person. I want to be that person who is strong and courageous and does not worry about crossing dark parking lots at midnight.
So I walked into the martial arts school instead of the liquor store, and that is how I went from being on the path to becoming a professor of medieval literature to . . . well, I can’t explain it. I tell stories, and help other people tell theirs, and hope that at least occasionally I get it right, and something is illuminated.
The training in the martial arts helped me solve my problems, mostly. I learned to speak up for myself, and I lost some weight, and I grew stronger, and I found out you could get hit pretty hard and you didn’t have to fall down.
In the training, you learn how to do one thing, and then a harder thing, and a harder one. You climb a mountain, so to speak. The training worked. It made me excellent at climbing mountains. What I learned in the training I used in graduate school and at jobs—I still use it to this day, so many years later. You set a goal, and you figure out what you have to do to get there, and you do that. I got very good at accomplishing things.
And then the training, like life, gives you plateaus. Hard training. Long stretches of time where you don’t get any better. You get worse. Long thankless periods of training where you try this and then that but you never improve and maybe you never will no matter how many action plans you write or training sessions you take.
Deserts, a friend of mine calls them. You don’t climb deserts or tackle them or strategize ways to get around them. You just get through them. You endure. You don’t know where you’re going. You don’t even know if there is somewhere to go. For all you know, there may not be the other side. There may not be a through. There may just be the desert. The desert and you, and all the things it is going to reveal about your soul, which maybe you didn’t really want to get into just now.
A while after I started training, I had a child. A terrible thing happened to my daughter when she was born, a devastation that robbed her of a normal life, the kind that other children get. Being her mother has made me climb any number of mountains but mostly I have spent a long time in the desert, not knowing where I was going or if I would ever get through, the experience helpfully revealing to me all the weaknesses in my soul.
The desert is not about achieving things or getting over them or healing. The desert is about accepting what is. It is not about saying, “Oh, it’s fine that my daughter is so badly maimed.” It is about learning to say: “My daughter is badly maimed” and finding a way to exist with it, with what is.
And at some point you move beyond the labels, because they aren’t signposts that will show you the way to anywhere. You just see the thing and you stop judging it. You aren’t going to be happy about it, and you aren’t going to celebrate it, but you are going to put down your sword and stop fighting it. And then you think, Aha! I have learned a thing!
But you are wrong. The desert shifts constantly, and you can fall asleep one night content in your understanding, and by morning your knowledge will have fled. You will wake up with tears streaming down your face, thinking, Why can’t my beautiful daughter be healed?
You thought you had defeated that darkness a long time ago.
The thing about the desert is, if you have been here long enough, the shifting sands stop being enough to frighten you. You have been here before, and you have endured. You took the next breath and you took the next step. And so you will do again, again and again. You know there will be sorrow but you also know there will be joy. And you wait for both of them just the same, and treat them like old friends.