Yet it’s clear to me that my public presentation is only part of the story. Just as we usually share the photos where we smile, we tend to emphasize the positive, happy aspects of our experiences with others.
I haven’t described the near constant state of sleep deprivation that Giulia and I are in, nor the moments when we can’t do anything to calm little Gabriel down, nor his prodigious output of excrement, which requires an industrial quantity of laundering. But these ‘difficulties’ are just as much a part of this experience, and there are just as many lessons in them.
The other day, after a short night of punctuated sleep, Gabriel woke up crying for the millionth time as the sun was rising. I took him into the living room and rocked him in the chair, walked him around the house, and applied every soothing strategy we knew to no avail (he even rejected sucking on my finger, which he’s normally keen to do!).
After 15 minutes of crying, my head pounding from the shrill noise and my belly groaning with hunger, I began to think, “I can’t do this” – not the first time this had crossed my mind these past few weeks. With Giulia’s help, his crying tapered off and he fell asleep (I’m unfortunately anatomically mal-equipped in certain key respects), which allowed me to take my breakfast and morning coffee. The rest of the day, even though he was fussy at times, I approached him with gentleness and patience, understanding that he’s just a baby and this is what babies do. The crisis past, I showed myself that I could indeed ‘do this.’
I began thinking about the wiki-metaphor project and wondered, is there some object or phenomenon I could find that could serve as a metaphor for this?
Of course! Carbon.
If we wanted to know the properties of carbon- what it’s really made of- it’s not enough to simply study it in isolation. To truly know carbon, we must subject it to heat, pressure, and interaction with other elements.
Similarly, while you can discover a great deal about yourself alone, you only discover the extent of your capacities when you’re faced with situations that are stressful and challenging.
It’s easy to sit and cultivate patience in meditation, but are we as serene when faced with a screaming child? Can we take meditating on love and compassion in the abstract and concretely apply it in our day-to-day interactions?
Joseph Campbell speaks of the ‘hero’s journey,’ and how sometimes, you feel inclined to go out and seek adventure, while other times the adventure finds you. Either way, there’s a process of transformation that occurs as the situation forces you to go into your depths, confront the dragons and demons, and hopefully make it out of there with something to share with others.
In some ways, becoming a parent is like being drafted into the army: you’re thrown into a completely foreign situation with a million things coming at you all at once, which no amount of training can truly prepare you for. Many soldiers and parents discover whether they are indeed courageous, selfless, and strong only when they are tested.
Of course, you needn’t have a child or go to war to out what you’re made of. Expanding your ‘I’ can be done in countless ways: psychedelics, near death experiences, communing with nature, falling in love, etc. Sometimes we go out seeking these things, but more often than not, the transformation occurs independent of our will.
For those who make through these experiences, the boundaries of ‘I’ expand, because the illusion of yourself at the center of the world and in control is no longer tenable.
Just like mixing carbon with calcium or hydrogen, we discover that there is indeed more to us than we previously thought. And if we can integrate those insights, we can hopefully live with more love, patience, and kindness than before.
In this respect, we can see carbon as metaphor in one final, important way: if we are patient, and subject it to great heat and pressure for long enough, it transforms from a dusty, black lump of coal to a shimmering diamond.