As my children started taking tests and getting grades and gaining and losing boyfriends and girlfriends -- and the stakes got higher -- I realized something had to change. Since the world didn't step up and volunteer to alter itself, changing had to be an inside job.
So during their early teens I returned to the meditation practice I had abandoned when they were little. For my birthday one year I bought myself a seven-disc recording of dharma talks delivered by the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. The subject turned out to be happiness, which, she warned, "cannot be found through getting serious and uptight about wanting things to go in the direction that we think will bring happiness." The point, she insisted, is that "the happiness we seek is already here and it will be found through relaxation and letting go."
In looking back now, I see that my confusion was understandable. As a child I was pretty much on my own in the happiness department. My parents traveled for six months of the year and then returned to take up their parental positions, in which they swung between being delightful coconspirators and strict disciplinarians. My brother and I were not very happy children, but what mattered to my parents was that everyone looked happy. He and I learned early on that troubles, failures, and misfortunes were best kept to ourselves. So I entered the vast and mapless terrain of parenthood not wanting my own children to feel, as I had felt, that they were all alone out there.
Over time, my spiritual practice let me step back from my children's disappointments and perceive them more accurately as minor glitches or even useful life lessons. When one of my kids got into trouble for underage drinking, my first response was panic, but soon I began to see how useful an experience it had been, for all of us. When one of them didn't get accepted at a first-choice school, I listened, watched, and a few weeks later e-mailed that child another Chödrön quotation: "When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure." (Please note: I did not send the quote immediately because nothing is more annoying than being assaulted by Buddhist wisdom when you're sobbing in bed.)
Instead of continuing to hammer home the message that pain and failure are unbearable and must be avoided at any cost, I tried to communicate a lesson that somehow, miraculously, my children had gleaned on their own: that if you aspire to anything other than sitting in your room playing video games, pain and failure are inevitable. The goal is not to avoid them but to learn how to take them in stride. Besides, it had not escaped my notice that the bad stuff that happened to us was minuscule compared to the tragedies that befell other people around the world -- mortar shells, tsunamis, gunshots, hunger. To spend too much time wallowing in unhappiness seemed ungrateful.