Seasons of the Soul
Silence as the Union of Opposites
God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches you by means of opposites, so that you will have two wings to fly—not one. ~ Rumi
Last spring my husband and I decided to embark on a midlife adventure. He quit his teaching career of twelve years, the one he was ready for a break from. Together we sold our home, car, and most of our belongings.
In some ways, our plans came together very quickly—we would move to Austria for a year where I had recently acquired dual citizenship through my father, learn German, and see what life had in store for us next. The seeds had been planted for some time though, between our yearly trips to Vienna, falling more and more in love with the city, and our shared desire to explore living in a different culture.
We live in Vienna now, in a small apartment near the center of the city. Most days I have moments when I feel thrilled to be here, to wander the streets of this beautiful city, to go around each corner in anticipation of what I might discover there. I walk around wide-eyed and gleeful, wondering how I got so lucky to live out a dream.
And most days I have moments when I feel an overwhelming sadness, a homesickness for our comfortable life before, the familiarity of our neighborhood where I knew where to find the things I needed, or a loneliness from missing friends and family who are much too far away.
My German is quite rusty from years of non-use. I walk into the pharmacy to ask for something to treat my late summer cold, and the pharmacist hands me a decongestant and advises me to stay hydrated. The wine taverns would be a good place for this, he jokes, and I laugh with him, savoring a moment of human connection. In that moment I feel like I could live here forever.
Later that day, I call on the phone to set up an appointment with a medical specialist for a chronic condition I have. I can understand the woman for the most part, but then she asks that I do two important things before I come to my first appointment and I tell her I do not understand what she is asking. "Please put on someone who speaks German," she asks brusquely in German. "But I am the only one here," I reply on the verge of tears. Nothing makes me feel vulnerable like trying to navigate health systems to receive the care that I need. In that moment I want nothing more than to run "home" to what is familiar and understandable. Eventually she realizes that she knows enough English to communicate the missing words to me: an x-ray and blood work. I sigh with relief that this hurdle has been crossed.
Each day I have encounters where I feel the sheer delight of connecting with someone from another culture, moments of genuine humanity, and I also have the dread of trying to figure out something important to my well-being in a language that feels simultaneously familiar and deeply foreign to me.
In my more vulnerable moments I wonder at my sanity and this continual movement between elation and discouragement. I want to feel one way so as to know what this experience is about. I want to feel one way so that I can judge whether my experience here is "good" or "bad."
Carl Jung, at the end of his life, said: "I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am distressed, depressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once and cannot add up the sum."
Every morning here I make time for silence. I need this anchor, this connection to Source, to remember everything that I am and to not try and add up the sum of my parts.
In the silence I remember that my life is not wholly good or bad here. The discomfort and the exhilaration are both essential to my experience.
There are so many things for me to learn on this adventure; it is really a time of inner exploration as much as outer. To learn what pushes me to my own edges, to notice the places where I am resistant to welcoming in what feels strange, these are the things I have come for as much as I would love to not have to wrestle with them. I want to feel stretched and expanded, but sometimes it is just so uncomfortable.
We are often taught that we should feel one way, preferably happy, and we are not taught how to be with ambiguity, with the contradictions in our experience. I am here on the adventure of a lifetime. I am profoundly blessed and privileged to have this experience, and so often feel a measure of guilt for my moments of ingratitude and impatience.
Yet this is what silence teaches me: I contain multitudes. I cannot be fully defined by happy or sad, joyful or sorrowful. I do not need to choose, for the richness of life embraces all of it. I need only show up to each moment, to embrace the wholeness of who I am. I need only remember the wisdom of Rumi that the opposites of my heart offer me the possibility of flight.
Christine Valters Paintner, Ph.D., is a Benedictine Oblate and the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery without walls offering online classes and resources in contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of seven books on monastic spirituality and creativity including The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom (Ave Maria Press), Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings (SkyLight Paths), and Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (forthcoming 2013 from Ave Maria Press). Christine earned her Ph.D. in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and her work focuses on the intersection of the arts, contemplative spirituality and practice, and the wisdom of the seasons. Visit her website Abbey of the Arts.