Ahimsa & Satya
July 20, 2019
Emily Moorefield Mariola
Non-violence and Truthfulness in questions about Family.
One of the first things we are taught as yogis are the Yamas and Niyamas. These guidelines for living’ are the first two limbs of the Ashtanga Yoga systems 8-fold path. These come from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and introduce the yogi to a detailed, practical, step by step guide to a particular way of living. As Debora Adele says in her simple-to-understand, easy to read book “The Yamas and Niyamas”,“they facilitate taking ownership of your life and directing it towards the fulfillment that you seek.” Within the first limb, the yamas, we are introduced to the five “restraints”. These include: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-excess and non-possessiveness. However, one of the first questions many yogis consider is the interplay between the first two restraints: ahimsa and satya: Non-violence and Truthfulness. This is as is should be. A good question. Although both are to be considered, we learn that ahimsa always comes first. This is good. This is also not easy. I cannot tell you how many times I have chosen ahimsa over satya and how long I have then carried the burden of that decision in the pit of my belly. I have chosen kindness over truthfulness so that I make other people happy, so that people asking questions about my family can be put at ease. I don’t want to make any one uncomfortable, do I? It’s not the yogi way. So, I don’t, and then I suffer. Hmmm… not fulfilling ahimsa if I feel strife within, am I? And so it goes. These two tenants of living are not so simple to practice after all. I’ve been thinking about this since I had a short interaction with another yogi on IG. She was in the process of trying to foster/adopt and has been hurt over and over again by people asking her why she doesn’t have kids, why she doesn’t want kids, is she going to have kids, “WHEN, then???” (always a favorite!) and every single time it is hurtful to her. And yet, every single time she responds with kindness as she carries a renewed sadness. I do the same. My entire family does the same. I cannot tell you how often people ask me to define my family. Visually, my family looks a bit confusing and I understand that. Not drastically so; there are all kinds of interesting families out there in the big wide world. Hallelujah, right? Is this why it is okay to ask questions though? Something about us might be off, but no one is quite sure what or why? Does every family get questions? Why are we asking? Why do we need to know? My four kids are less than five years apart. My first son who is 16 is taller than his father and carries the strong Italian gene of my husband’s paternal family. My second son resembles his French grandmother and is of strong frame and equally strong internal compass. My first daughter is of Mayan descent and was adopted from Guatemala. My fourth child, also a daughter, picked up porcelain skin, blonde locks and wild ways from somewhere in my own father’s family (although these genes unkindly skipped me!). They don’t look at all like one another and, with the exception of one, they don’t look particularly like my husband or I either. They are a mixed bag for sure. In my mind, a cause for great celebration. Look how amazing humans are! We create new humans and they are absolutely their own beings! They are not us! What a fucking relief, eh? I don’t want another one of me in my house, nor do I want another of my husband. I want four brand new humans, full of their own thoughts, ideas, dreams, possibilities.
So. I ask/beg you. Please stop asking people questions about their families if you do not know them well. (And even then, be careful.) There are no categories. There are no boxes to put humans in. My family is not THAT diverse, and yet we are asked questions over and over and over again. Why? How? Where does she fit in? Where does he fit in? Where did she get that blonde hair? Is that really your son? He is so tall. If you think that we don’t see these things in ourselves you are mistaken. We all know how we are, and we don’t need anyone else to point these things out to us. And yet, when you do, we smile an awkward smile and let you do your asking until you are satisfied with us. Until you have put us into categories to suit you. We are happy to oblige: Do we make sense to you now? Are you satisfied? Ah, good then. We can all go on now… The Mariola’s are back in a box.
Now and then, usually after a couple glasses of wine, I will giggle about how I might answer these questions if I were not bound by the laws of human kindness. “Oh, yeah. She looks that way because I had a sordid affair with a Mayan man on a mission trip deep in the mountains of Guatemala. While the rest of the good folks were painting walls in the new Elementary School an eclectic orange color we were running off into the jungle alone. Mike and I chose to keep the child, and to stay married. Thanks for asking. I hope it all makes sense to you now.” Not ahimsa, not satya. But kinda funny.
Is she yours? Is he yours? Which of these are yours? Are these all yours? Are any of these yours? Where is she from? Where did you get her? Are you their mom?
Here is the thing, I almost always (one woman in Wal-Mart caught me on a particularly bad day) answer these questions with kindness and grace. With ahimsa. I also, always, carry a heavy stone in my stomach afterward. I do not answer these questions with truthfulness. My answers are accurate, but they are not true. What I should say, and what yoga has taught me to say is something like: Yes. My daughter Annie is adopted. However, your question is hurtful to me and to her. My youngest daughter Mia is also troubled by these questions and will try to answer quickly so that her sister doesn’t have to explain herself to you. If you really need to know, I would prefer you to pull me aside to ask your question privately and kindly. I would also like to suggest that you don’t ask questions like these in the future.
I cannot tell you how much I would love to say these things. I also know I would potentially be hurting someone if I answered them this way. I understand that they might be embarrassed by my response and I have an instinct to protect other people from this feeling? Why? I can’t imagine! I have equally strong emotional reactions to the questions! I always find myself using my most annoying tight lipped, fluttery eyed, tilted head response… “oh, yes (awkward forced laugh). Annie is adopted, the other three are not. They are all siblings.” Followed by a shuffle and a scurry to push all four of them in another direction with a glance over my shoulder and a stone in my belly (and likely in the belly of at least one of the rest of them).
I would like to insert here, if I may, a few times in these last 16 years of parenting when I have been filled to bursting with pride for how these questions have been dealt with. Once, when the kids were still quite small, we were in Wal-Mart (what is it with that place?) when a woman literally stopped us in the isle and asked, with her finger pointing directly at Annie’s nose, she was almost three at the time, “Is she adopted?”. I paused. These questions were still new to me then. As I tried to formulate an appropriate ahimsa-filled response, Vincy (almost four) looked her square in the eye and said: “No.” I couldn’t fucking believe it. I knew he knew, there had never been any sort of secret or confusion about this, had there? I smiled sweetly at her. I let it be. I let her turn her buggy around and go away shaking her head. If you know Vincy, you know he doesn’t mess around. He had delivered an answer and I was sticking with it. I waited. I took four little kids and our cart through the line running his hard NO through my mind again and again. No??? I waited until I had three kids strapped in car seats and one in a regular seat in my super-sexy mini van and climbed in myself. I forced myself to put a few miles between us and the inquiring Walmart-er and then asked. “Vincy, why did you tell that woman Annie wasn’t adopted.” I turned my rearview mirror so I could see his face. He looked me in eye. (Vin is good at that.) “She was, but now she’s just regular.” Oh my God. How I loved that child in that moment. Yes. Vincy. Yes. Now she IS just regular.
There was one other time, a time drastically different but equally sweet. I had packed four little kids and my mother into my still-sexy mini van and had driven to my aunt’s house on Chincoteague Island for a week in the sand. Ian had immediately made friends with a few other boys and spent his days running up and down the beach with them. They made plans to meet up day after day and eventually their little boy tribe grew to about 7 or 8 kids. Vincy joined in, although he was still a bit small. My girls stayed closer to me. It was a fabulous week. One day, packing up, the group of kids was milling about as I tried to get mine headed to the car. Of course they weren’t ready to go and I was running out of patience. I noticed one of the boys looking quizzically at Annie. I could tell he was comparing the color of her purple/black hair to the white blonde hair of her little sister. Her dark brown skin to my freckled hot pink sunburnt skin. Her thin frame to the muscle-bound boys. I felt myself swallow the stone. “Here we go” I thought to myself. Finally, the child approached Annie and my shoulders tensed. I was ready to step in. Quietly, he asked her. “Are you adopted?” Annie barely nodded her head. “I am too”, he said. That was it. He looked at her with understanding. She looked at him. Nothing else was said. I thought it was a beautiful moment. I don’t think anyone else even noticed it. This child saw himself in Annie and shared his understanding. I hope Annie saw herself in him. Another tribe. Another family.
The short story is this: Don’t ask these sorts of questions. Ever. It doesn’t matter. If we are simply a group of humans spending some time together we do not need to be understood in a way that satisfies anyone but us. These questions are immensely hurtful. We do not want to pause our day to reflect on the implications of these questions. Imagine the other millions of ways people could be together in unlikely groups: there are so many beautiful, tragic, powerful stories of people coming together and calling it family out there! We do not need to understand or to define any of them! Yoga has taught me better and still I have not risen to the task. I must do better. We all must do better! If I don’t start to do better I cannot begin to change the dialogue around these very questions, and yet I am so uncomfortable making other people uncomfortable that I resist.
It is our responsibility as humans, as yogis, as women and men, and as mothers and fathers, as sisters and brothers to dramatically change the dialogue surrounding our collective understanding of family. Further, to change the dialogue about fertility and infertility, about foster care and adoption, about mixed families and non-traditional family units, about how people do not need to be defined to belong.
The six of us are family. We are just regular. I will continue to practice ahimsa, but I will work more carefully to practice satya.