In family life, love itself can become the container within which we live.
“Love does not arise, abide or dissolve in connection with any particular feeling. Love has instead become a container within which we live. Through time, riding mysterious waves of passion, aggression and ignorance, we begin to live within love itself. Each time we open up, extend ourselves, accept what is offered or step beyond our comfort zones, the structure is reinforced. And if you are looking for a crucible in which to heat compassion, marriage is a good one…” — From “I Do?” by Susan Piver
One day my mother handed me a piece of card stock paper with a poem typed on it. It looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place where I knew it from. She said, “Don’t you remember? It’s from your wedding invitation!” It was just what I needed to read again, except this time, instead of the word marriage in the last line, I inserted family life.
Indeed, if you are looking for a crucible to heat compassion, family life is a good one.
Family life did indeed feel like a crucible in which to heat compassion. In her poem “I Do?” Susan Piver writes that “In commitment, we say yes to the unfolding, impenetrable arc of uncertainty. Love does not arise, abide or dissolve in connection with any particular feeling. Love has instead become a container within which we live.” She goes on to describe how through a process of riding the waves of so many emotions, we “begin to live within love itself.”Each time we extend beyond our comfort zones, the container of love is reinforced.
Family life and marriage had certainly become a place where I rode all kinds of emotions. Yet over the years, I’d simultaneously also relaxed into a container of love. The commitment to staying present and to keep showing up in the spirit of connection was the glue that often held it all together — especially in the difficult moments. As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “In family life, love is the oil that eases friction, the cement that binds us closer together, and the music that brings harmony.” Indeed.
The Fruits of Commitment at Work
The word “commit” has its origins in the Latin committee, “to unite, connect, combine; to bring together.” The commitment to one another and the broader values of love, intimacy, and connection are some of the forces that keep my family, and my relationships, together. The gesture of commitment brings us back together as we weave our way through the ups and downs of our days. My husband and I often joke that the bridge to one another has gotten longer since having children. Yet despite this, we’re committed to doing what it takes to stay connected, even when we’re both at opposite ends, trying to hold so many pieces together.
The commitment also translates to my connection with my sons. Over the years, through trial and error, we knitted the conditions for mutual trust. There were many messy moments where I doubted my path. It took time before I could see and feel the container of love and commitment at work on the parenting journey.
One day, the role of commitment shone clear. There had been a clash between siblings, teetering on the edge of them possibly harming one another. I’d raised my voice and was feeling regretful. During a moment of space before re-joining the flow of family life, I took a pause. I knew apologies were in order on all sides.
What helped to pull me back together to step forward as my best self was the experience of feeling married to the container of what had become
a 24-hour-a-day family life crucible. I was wedded to the intentions I (and we) had set over the years per how we wanted to live together as a family unit. Here was where I could model humility — and I could own up to my own mistakes while also calling forth the best in my children.
We came together after the dust had settled to go over what had gone wrong. One of my sons asked, “Do you need a hug or anything?” He knew I had been upset. It had taken time, practice, and patience, but slowly over the course of the years, since each of my sons had entered my life, we’d figured out how to communicate. The path to getting here certainly followed an “arc of uncertainty.” It had required trust and a great deal of commitment.
Drawing Up a List of Family Values
One thing that helped our family clarify our commitments was to draw up a list of our family values. We used crayons and pictures, and together we wrote out the rules we agreed to live by. We posted the list on the blue paper near our dining-room table to see it every day. “Checking in” was on the list. It was a reminder that we all agreed to check in with one another after difficult things — whether there were hurt feelings or harsh words. Often this involved an apology. Other times it involved asking if other family members “needed anything.” We also agreed that check-in didn’t have to happen immediately. It was reserved for when everyone was ready.
As my younger sons settled into preschool and my oldest settled into the grade school years, I noticed that there was finally a safety net that we seemed to relax into during and after our moments of conflict. It had taken years of trial and error and staying with the difficulty and uncertainty. I’d practiced telling them again and again, “I love you no matter what… we all make mistakes.” And I was sure to own my part of wrong-doing in moments of discord. We could now seamlessly express our anger, have our outbursts, and then share our disappointments and frustrations with what went wrong and what we wish went differently. Some days that process took longer than others and involved more fanfare. Other days, we could more quickly “push the green light button” (as we called it) to start over.
Reinforcing the Family Container
Along the way, I’d learned that love itself had indeed become the container within which we lived. Through time, riding the waves of so many emotions, we had begun to live within love itself. Each time we were open with one another or stepped beyond our comfort zones, the structure of our familial commitment was indeed reinforced.
Through commitment, we’d been given the greatest gift. When the commitment itself was fed and nourished, the container of love was there to support us. In family life, there were the crazy waves of joy and tenderness coupled with everything else. There was utter chaos. There was seemingly constant movement. There was noise. There were quiet moments of snuggles before sleep. There were fierce kicks to the shins right on the heels of the most
precious moments of sibling love. And it all happened in any single day!
Family life at its closest is not for the faint of heart. There is no seclusion here, no retreating to quiet, familiar places. There are always fresh invitations, fresh wounds, and fresh moments, offering fodder appreciation and seeing with new eyes. There is always a wave to ride.
Sometimes the escape from the close container has its allure — but then I realize that the true gifts of staying committed only come to fruition over time and after the hard work of staying present, particularly through difficult spaces. The true gifts are only often revealed when we say a loud Yes! to the crucible of family life — hurt feelings, wild joy, messy chaos, deep love, the arc of profound uncertainty, and all.
How is family life a crucible of transformation for you?
What are you committed to with your family? Take time to revisit or set intentions, alone and together.
Practice noticing how love can be the container within which you live, even when working with difficult spaces or uncertainty.
Deborah is the author of The Invitation of Motherhood: Uncovering the Spiritual Lessons of Parenting, from which the above is adapted.Deborah McNamara
Sustainability & Climate Activist. Yoga Teacher. Author, Invitation of Motherhood: Uncovering the Spiritual Lessons of Parenting. More: www.debmcnamara.com