My son failed his driver’s exam before he ever got in the car. But in doing so, he aced a different, and much more important, test.

He turned 16 in March of this year. In the great administrative techno-state of Maine, in order to get a full driver’s license before the age of 18, you must go through a bureaucratic maze of idiocy and delay that means that you do not have a full, unrestricted driver’s license until you are 21. Even for my son, who works 24 hours a week and has the good student designation, and completed the written test perfectly and fastest of his cohort, there is no assumption of responsibility and maturity. Instead, the system is designed to teach teens that they are likely to screw up and therefore require meddling and nannying.

Nonetheless, having managed every aspect of his scheduling and finances so that he could check each box off at the earliest possible moment, he arrived for his road test, handed in his paperwork, sat down at the eye exam box, and peered inside.

Where there were not as many letters as there were supposed to be, at least according to him.

His vision needed correction, which meant that he could not take the practical exam.

He had to wait to get corrective lenses and then resubmit his request for the test. For all this diligence and careful planning, the fates had thwarted him.

He was devastated. We rode home in relative silence, and when we got to the house, he said he was going to walk down to the cove. Four months later, he told me what he did.

When I failed the eye test, I went down to the cove with my backpack and I built a small fire in my stove. I said to myself that, as long as the fire was burning, I could be sad. I could keep the fire going for as long as I wanted, and I could restart it as many times as I wanted, but, if it was out, I couldn’t be sad.

Three months later, when he finally got to take the test, he passed with flying colors. Within a week, he bought his own car, with his own money.

Tara Brach has a concept called a “resource anchor.” You identify something, a physical or mental object, to refer to when you come adrift from your peace and centeredness. We are all faking it until we make it, creating levels of ritual to cope with the flood of existential crises, personal and collective, that wash over us. As soon as I recognize that anything can become a tool to this end, as well as to see what tools I may have unconsciously chosen that no longer serve me, I am a little more free.

There is a problem in my life I cannot solve.

For reasons I can psycho-analyze, and speculate upon, but don’t really know, one of the people in my family has chosen to treat someone else in the family as if she hates him. She has cut him out of her life as much as possible, and all of their interactions are miserable. This is causing tremendous pain to the object of this hostility, while also engendering bitterness and resentment in others (as well as complicating certain situations where some level of agreement and cooperation is required due to legalities). I have tried to maintain what Charles Eisenstein calls “the center,” which is not astride the fence but, rather, compassionate towards the humanness of the parties involved while maintaining my core allegiance to my intuition.

I have heard a saying, from Ilyana Vanzant, that forgiveness is letting go of all hope for a different past. To paraphrase other, wiser, writers than I, when we forgive we do not promise to forget, or say it is okay, or acquiesce to the continuation of the conditions that created the situation. We don’t deny our own experiences.

But we also don’t resort to blame, shame, and hatred. We don’t make impossible demands or mete out perpetual punishments. We just accept the past as it is, acknowledge the humanness of each other, and get clear about what we need from this point forward. Sometimes we can forgive and continue, sometimes we forgive and part ways, but always two relationships are refined or redefined – the one we have with the perceived perpetrator, and the one we have with ourselves.

What do I do, though, when the anger and the pain aren’t mine? When there is no forgiveness for me to offer, or ask for, or, as is usually the case, both? How do I surrender to the suffering that is around me, that is passing through me, while remaining true to myself?

What do I do when I cannot take away the source of the pain?

What do I do when the pain is mine, and still I cannot change the outward circumstances?

I light the fire where the situation exists: outside of myself. As long as it burns, I allow the pain to wash over and through. Whenever it begins to kindle inside of me again, I light it outside instead. And when it dies down, I set it free.

I let it change phase; solid to vapor.

And in so doing, set myself free.

The Big At Large is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Cosmic Sentencing