I was giggling at some joke Julia made when she asked me, “Mom, why do you laugh when I laugh and cry when I cry?” Wow, kid, how do I answer that one?
If I’m honest, I don’t remember what I told her, but I can’t stop thinking about the question.
The Buddha taught about the reality of suffering. That every day, we encounter the stress of living in the world. This isn’t a nihilistic viewpoint. It’s just the truth. And he taught that we suffer because we want things to be other than they are — that we cling to what we like and push away what we don’t like. We suffer, in other words, when we are separated from what we love and associated with what we dislike.
When my kids are happy and laughing, I feel relaxed and joyful. It’s a natural response to what is sweet.
And a couple of weeks ago when Julia was howling in pain and fear — so loud and panicked that the whole pediatrician’s office could hear her protesting her kindergarten vaccinations — I held her in silence while tears tumbled down my face.
Every parent I know has been swept away by the pain of a sad, scared child and the delight of a happy one.
But, the Buddha taught, while this is normal, it does not have to be inevitable. Even as parents, we do not have to depend on our children’s happiness for our own happiness. When I take their happiness as my own, in the same way I take their anger, sadness and suffering personally too.
Instead, we can develop the Brahma-viharas, the divine abodes or heavenly homes — loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. In Latin, compassion means “to suffer with,” and we can think we are supposed to suffer when others suffer. But the Buddha taught that with true compassion, we are not suffering at all as we hold and have empathy for the pain of others. In its place, there is equanimity.
With appreciative joy, we are witnessing and sharing in the good fortune of others, but we are not taking responsibility for it nor are we getting swept away by it. And we are not using it to buoy our own happiness. In place of jealousy, clinging or giddiness, there again, can be equanimity.
My kids bounce from emotion to emotion on the proverbial roller coaster of the heart, but I know they are looking to me for boundaries and true compassion — equanimity in the face of their disequilibrium. They aren’t looking for someone to ride alongside them, screaming with my hands in the air. Tempting as it is to go for a ride, in my heart I know they want me in the operator’s box, keeping them on the rails and riding the breaks.