Getting Lost Together: Parenting Without a Map
It’s not often that someone preaches the gospel of uncertainty and I listen, riveted to their every word. The thinker, philosopher, critic, and sage Bayo Akomolafe began his address to the virtual SAND Summit 2020 with an invitation to get lost. Or, at the very least, to defamiliarize the familiar beginning with the terrain we inhabit. He urged those on the call to reject modernity’s myths of mastery and to stop mistaking the map for the territory. To do this, he said, we need to let go of our assumptions about where we think we are and, instead, embrace the process of unknowing. In other words, forgetting everything we thought we knew and being with what is actually there.
Akomolafe puts this change of perspective in very visceral terms. He invites us to navigate with the nose, rather than GPS. This means letting ourselves be guided by our lived experience in the moment, not our preconceived notions of what should be where. He calls this ‘learning to stay with the terrain.’ I think, too, that it is a beautiful metaphor for the art of parenting. True, it works well as a critique of modernity too. Staying with the terrain, falling to the earth, prostrating ourselves to the elders are all ways Bayo recommends being radically present and, in the process, being truly alive.
As a parent, I have struggled to marshal this incredible courage needed to meet the moment. Often, to return to Akomolafe’s image, I have held tight to my map and placed my faith in its ability to guide me. I have been afraid of getting lost — of surrendering myself to what is already there. The pain of coming up short, the fear of not knowing enough about loving and being loved. These perceived negatives have been my stubborn enemies and I’ve never really known how to befriend them.
I am realizing — through the work of meditation and therapy — that this pain is the terrain. To be a parent in a pandemic is to hold all these big emotions in a strong, solid container. It is not to pretend they don’t exist or have no effect on me. That would be both dishonest and wrongheaded. Instead, the challenge is to, in Bayo’s words, “partner with the darkness.” And to tolerate, if not embrace, these wounds that scar the terrain. They define both its beauty and geography.
Brené Brown in her, ‘The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto,’ also writes about this need for both honesty and vulnerability. Midway through it, she describes a moment of communion between parents and children: “Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.” Here, as I read it, she is also suggesting a partnership with the darkness in the sense that it is an integral component of the human experience. To be human is to suffer. To recognize others’ suffering is to affirm our common humanity and, in doing so, feel compassion.
This last part of Brown’s promise is huge. “I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it (your pain.)” When I read this quote, I am struck by the steadfastness that it demonstrates. There is an agreement, we could even put it more strongly and say ‘an engagement,’ to accompany the child as they grapple with their pain. It evinces a quiet force, maybe an understated courage to be there and to witness the struggle firsthand. Not ‘to take away the pain,’ she reminds, but ‘to feel it.’
Ugh…that is so profound it hurts. It drills down deep into the drama of being human. And, yet, it is so hard to be in that place of witnessing pain, not fixing. My problem is that I want the map. To be blunt, even with the map, I feel lost. And, sometimes, I am filled with darkness that feels neither mysterious, nor life affirming. It’s the black hole of the wound of my own childhood trauma. When it gets touched, it sucks me in and collapses both space and time. I am, at once, the adult me and that neglected little girl I was growing up. It is a confusing and confounding place to inhabit.
And, I’m not entirely sure that I need to teach my children the geography of this place. They are living in a different emotional ecosystem and, as such, intuitively have a different grasp of the landscapes that comprise their home terrain. And this, I think, is the tricky balance of parenting; maybe why some are inclined to call it an art. I am trying to build a strong container to hold my children’s experiences, as well as my own. And, at the same time, to be honest and to take ownership of my brokenness. All the places where this vessel is cracked and compromised, yet still intact — enough to hold and to be held.
In my notes from Akomolafe’s address, he says, “Cracks are invitations to descend. There will be fault lines and fissures. There will be sanctuaries. Gods emerge there.” That is a lot of unpack. Let’s start with this notion of ‘cracks as invitations’ since it expresses the possibilities and pitfalls of the kind of emotional honesty and unguarded-ness for which Brown is also advocating in her ‘Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto.’ While there is certainly pain lurking in these depths, there is also the possibility of finding a shared space of sanctuary there as well. And that is everything.
Bayo Akomolafe recommends that we ‘stay with the trouble.’ That is what happens when we throw away the map and get lost. Maybe I’m getting this totally wrong, but what I am hearing him say is: learn to be vulnerable. Open your heart to light and darkness. Follow the fault lines that lead us to the depths of uncertainty. Only then will the Gods emerge and remind us what it means to be human. And, as a parent I am confident that, should the Gods fail to show, my children will do their work without hesitation. They will remind me that being a parent is, by definition, to be fragile, fallible. Susceptible to myths of mastery, yes. But also ready to be vulnerable — to let go of what was known in a past time — for the sake of love now. Embracing this disorienting, dizziness of being completely present in the moment.