Alive, Awake & Making It Through

Here we are, humans on the earth during and after a global pandemic. It's not like there wasn't a bunch to cope with already. But we're alive and awake and, with a lot of help, making it through the best we can. I'm waxing psychological about all that.


*Content note: I open with a metaphor of running a race and having the finish line altered midway, which may be triggering to some. To skip the metaphor, begin reading at the asterisk.*

Imagine you’re running a race. You’re on the course, somewhere midway, with other runners around you. This is not your first race. Maybe it’s going well, maybe it isn’t, but you know what you’re doing. You’ve trained for this. This is what you do.

First you hear murmurs that the finish line has been moved. Mid-race? To where? No one’s sure. Why? No idea. Is there a problem? Unclear. Are we even running the right way anymore? Who knows.

Then you’re told that the race has been postponed. Postponed to when? Are we safe on the course? Should we keep running? Should we stop? Should we turn around? Does what we’ve run so far matter at all?

Some people stay the course out of habit or disbelief. Others speed up, sprinting off in various directions. Still others slow down, and ultimately stop in their tracks. Whatever the response, no one is simply running the race anymore.

For many, this just happened to our lives.

We knew what we were doing. We had energy in a certain direction. Maybe we liked the course, maybe we didn’t, maybe a mix of the two. Perhaps we felt robust in keeping pace, or perhaps we felt chronically exhausted and behind. But, we were going along, doing what we do. Doing what we believed would work, what we’ve been taught would get us where we’re trying to go.

Now, that idea has been betrayed. All that work, that training, that progress, was not the guarantee we were told it would be. It did not deliver us from point A to point B as it was supposed to. So now we’re in between. And where is that? This is not a place we planned to spend much time: it was supposed to be merely a point we passed through en route to somewhere else.

So we keep going, but in a new haze of uncertainty. Or, we start sprinting in panic. Or, we grind to a halt in bewilderment.

*In other words, we’re in a crisis of faith.

We all have a worldview, a system of beliefs for organizing reality. Ideas we trust as the bedrock of our experience. When something happens that violates these beliefs, it can leave us reeling. We no longer know what to think, how to make sense of things. We feel at risk, without the certainty of knowing. In this void of trustworthy meaning, this Dark Night of the Soul, we can feel lost in obscurity.

The irony being, now that we’re no longer hastily passing through en route to somewhere else, now that we are where we are with our attention un-held by promises or certainties or goals, we can see more. We can hear more. We can feel more, where we actually are. From here, we can catch a glimpse into the constant change we live with, and the mind trying to order it.

Meaning is what our brains do for survival. We want to make sense of the world, our lives, ourselves, so we can navigate best. So we can take care of ourselves and our loved ones. So we can feel good, not bad. So we can have some assurances in all this uncertainty.

Meaning is important. Meaning helps us evaluate threat, and keep ourselves safe. But meaning isn’t stagnant: it can’t stay the same forever. It needs to adjust to new information, new circumstances. We know this inherently, that over the course of history the human consciousness has shifted, in accordance with how life on this planet unfolds over time.

But that doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with it when it’s happening to us. Even when we’re safe, a breakdown in meaning threatens our survival mechanism. Our brains think we need to make permanent sense of things in order to be okay. That we need to find the one way of understanding that will always be correct.

But we don’t. Certainty is not required for wellbeing. Which is good news, because certainty is not available. Threat brings feelings of uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean all uncertainty is a threat.

The brain will go on searching for meaning to keep us safe, and we should let it. There are things we need to know. But when the meaning it finds eventually has to change again, we can recognize this as simply the way of things. The way humans move through time. The way of adaptation in a constantly changing reality.

As you adapt, consider the following:

1. Settle for safe enough. Sometimes our safety needs attending to. Other times, we are reasonably safe from most threats, but our brains want us to be even safer than we are right now, from every conceivable problem it can conjure. This is how brains work in a world in which perfect safety isn’t guaranteed. But if you find yourself reasonably safe in this moment, trying to get even safer has diminishing returns. Your brain might need help dialing it back, so you can experience the benefits of being out of threat.

2. Allow uncertainty. We don’t always know. And what we do know may change. That’s okay! Meaning changes over time as our lives unfold. Your brain is just trying to help you survive by giving you good permanent answers for how things work. See if you can let yourself inhabit the place of not knowing, and teach your brain that you can be okay there.

3. Hold without grabbing. When your brain feeds you new ideas about reality, see if you can hold them with a looser grasp. We need ideas, but we likewise need flexibility with those ideas to let them come, go, and adapt to new information. Can you hold new meaning as a rough draft, knowing it will shift again as things continue to develop?

4. Choose process over content. When you’re searching for meaning but you’re coming up short, consider the process you’re in. The process of searching for meaning is meaningful in and of itself. You don’t have to get to a permanent answer to be getting somewhere. Maybe the process of searching is itself an answer to the question.

5. Find this moment. Even if you have no idea where you are, you know where you are: here. Find yourself here, in the present. Whatever you know or don’t know, what’s this like? What sensations are you feeling? Maybe you can’t locate yourself in meaning, but you can locate yourself in experience. Amidst uncertainty, we can ground ourselves where we are.

6. Turn to wisdom. Who do you turn to when you’re searching, unsettled, or in a crisis of faith? Maybe there are community leaders you trust to help you navigate change. Or people whose writing you find useful through life transitions. Or texts that support your grappling. The world is filled with wisdom on the human experience. Find who or what makes sense to you, supports you, meets you where you are, and brings you solace.

What helps you find wellbeing in uncertainty?

In pre-pandemic life, many of us would have loved a “stay-at-home” order. Mandated to cancel plans, quit the commute, wear sweatpants all day: what a dream! No loss, just reprieve. A break for the weary.

The real thing, though, is somewhat different. We don’t get to decide when it’s over. We don’t get to feel our internal clock go off and say, “okay, time to get back out there!” We don’t get to just return to the world when we’re ready.

As the long-term realities set in, things that used to seem mundane take on yearning. Picking up your morning coffee, small talk at work, running to the store without a passing thought. Being without these should be trivial, we tell ourselves. It’s just Starbucks, it’s just a quick hello with someone in the office kitchen, it’s just dinner out. Yet the feelings might not be so trivial.

Maybe you miss sitting in a coffee shop, simply in the presence of others, reading a book. While watching Netflix from quarantine, you see someone in a show casually hanging out sipping espresso as people bustle around, as if it’s no thing. In a split second, you’re recalling the sights, smells, textures, the solitude and yet togetherness of the setting, the familiarity of ritual in returning to your favorite chair. And with those sensations comes the ache of their absence.

Being without this for a time might not be the end of the world. In the grand scheme of things, with everything that’s going on, it may not rise to a level that you would deem “important.” But, it’s not meaningless. It does matter. Right now, something is out of reach. More than something, a lot of things. And when you add them all up, you might be missing a lot right now.

Missing hurts, but it’s not all bad. We miss because we love. And love benefits us, even when what we love isn’t available. Even in absence, we maintain relationships with these experiences inside ourselves. Through missing them, we have access to recollections of sensation, feeling, meaning. These things go on nourishing us from within.

And we go on being who we are, the people who love what we love.

If you love to travel, then you love it even when you can’t do it. What matters to you in traveling is important to who you are. Maybe you crave novelty. Maybe you love history. Maybe you value challenging one’s own perspective. Maybe you hope to live an eventful life. Removing the option to travel right now is a loss, but it doesn’t take those aspects of yourself away from you. Who you are remains.

If you’re missing the world right now, some things to consider:

1. Let it matter. Many of us struggle to let “small” things matter. As if to do so robs something bigger of meaning. “It’s not as important as xyz,” we say, as if to imply, “therefore it’s meaningless.” But our lives, and the world, are filled with meaning of all kinds. Missing your routines, quotidian pleasures, the shape your life took before now, gets to matter too, without stealing importance from anything else.

2. Name it. When you find yourself missing something, take a moment to identify and name it. Maybe you’re missing the coffee shop, but inside of that, what you’re yearning for is community. Solitude. Freedom. Comfort. Pleasure. Relaxation. Labeling experience can help us make sense of things, identify what’s important to us, and find aspects of those things in other places where we can.

3. Find comfort in discomfort. Maybe you practice mindfulness and have some experience allowing discomfort to come and go. Perhaps you hold gratitude to remind you, in the face of absence, that there is also abundance. Or maybe when you’re sad, you reach out for comfort from others. Whatever works for you, finding ways to bear the ache of missing allows more access to the nourishing parts: the experience, the meaning, the you being you, loving what you love.

4. Recognize seasons. Some things we get to do all year round, while others are available only sometimes. If you are a lover of seasonal activities like going to the beach, skiing, apple-picking, growing a garden, then you know this feeling. While entering global crisis is not quite akin to the familiar changing of seasons, our experience with seasons teaches us how to miss doing things we love when it's not their time, yet go on loving them while finding other ways to enjoy and express ourselves.

5. Make it personal. We miss because we love. Think or write about what you’re missing from the perspective of what you love, and who you are because of it. What do you love about going on adventures, and how is that important to who you are, even when you can’t? How does loving museums or concerts or baseball games hold an aspect of your identity? What do you love, and how does that make you you?

6. Let yourself dream. All is not lost. Throughout our lives, we lose, and we gain. Every night, we say goodbye to the day we just had, and prepare to say hello to the one coming up. Let yourself hope. Once you feel into what you miss and why that matters to you, let yourself envision the ways in which aspects might arrive to you in new and unexpected form. We don’t know what’s coming, but we know it won’t be only loss. Things will arrive. What might they be?

How are you missing the world?

I’ve seen a lot of Groundhog Day jokes circling. If you haven’t watched it, Groundhog Day is a movie in which a weatherman (Bill Murray) gets caught in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over. Every morning he wakes up and it’s Groundhog Day again. One meme jokes that Groundhog Day has been reclassified as a documentary. If that isn’t a statement on feeling stuck.

For many, this pandemic is an exercise in repetition. Day after day, the same situation. It’s a slog. We feel stagnant. We can’t move forward. Nothing is changing.

It’s fascinating how stuck we can feel, given that we’re living on the surface of a planet rotating at roughly 1,000 miles per hour. A planet hurtling through space at approximately 67,000 miles per hour. A planet spiraling away from the sun a little bit with each revolution, meaning we’re never back in the same position twice. A planet with day and night, with weather, with tectonic plates shifting under us.

And yet, here we are, feeling stuck.

Bill Murray felt stuck. He lived Groundhog Day countless times over, the same day with the same events. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t escape. Yet each time he went through the day, time had passed (in a manner of speaking). It was version ninety-seven, instead of ninety-six. He had been through it one more time, was a little different, had learned some things. So, the next version went a little differently.

In other words, he was in process.

The whole universe is in process. Lest you think something is stagnant out there in distant space, the entire universe itself is expanding. Some of our neighboring galaxies are receding from us at more than 150,000 miles per hour. Not only is the universe in process, the universe is process.

And we, being part of the universe, are process too. Everything you do is part of the vast universe unfolding. With every breath, you are different. You are older. Cells have been born, and cells have died. You have thought unique thoughts you will never think that precise way again. You are further from something in your past, and closer to something in your future.

So with all of this motion, how can we feel stuck?

When we say, “I’m stuck,” we don’t mean that we have become frozen in space-time with no movement whatsoever (though it sure can feel that way). We mean we are suffering, and can’t change it. We can’t move the way we need or want to move. We don’t have the option we’re looking for. We lose a sense of agency, and with that, feel hopeless. We can’t get out.

None of us can will the pandemic over before it’s over. There is plenty we can do, but no magic wand. When we don’t have the power we wish we had, we tend to fall into despair. We find ourselves at the mercy of what is unfolding, and feel that because we can’t change it, it isn’t changing.

But it is changing. It is unfolding. We are unfolding. Here, in our little corner of the universe, we are moving through this. Every second, we are further from when this pandemic began. And every second, we are closer to when it will end.

If you’ve been feeling stuck, here are some things to try:

1. Notice change. What motion can you perceive right now? Whether it’s a bird flying, a second-hand ticking away, clouds drifting, rain falling, your own chest rising with breath, notice some of the changes you can perceive.

2. Question stillness. Stillness is motion our senses can’t detect. We look up at stars that seem fixed because we can’t tell from here that they, too, are moving. We look down at our toenails and can’t see them growing; but they are. What, from where you are, looks still? What motion can’t you see?

3. Recognize process. All around and within us, we can notice the universe in process. Listen to a song. Cook a pot of soup. Observe a cycle of your breath. Notice plants growing. Track the moon’s phases. Watch dust collect on a windowsill. Feel yourself blink. All of these are process. All have process within them, too small for us to see. And all are within process, bigger than we can detect.

4. Locate yourself. Check today’s date. Look at the clock. Right now is the only time it will be this date and time. Wherever you are, inside yourself, on the earth, in the cosmos, you are in a specific spot that will have changed the very next moment. You will never be exactly here again.

5. Remember where you’ve been. When we can’t see the road ahead, it can be difficult to tell that we’re moving forward. But turn around and look behind you. Realize how much has changed, how much you’ve changed. When else have you felt stuck? How can you see from here that you were moving then too?

6. Be in transit. Whatever this moment is for you, you’re about to move into the next one. It may feel different, or it may feel remarkably similar. Maybe you perceive a change, or maybe you don’t. Like looking out an airplane window, sometimes you can see the ground shifting beneath you. But sometimes, at night or over open ocean, you can’t. Yet you know you are moving. You, in transit, are passing through. And this experience, transitory, is passing through you too.

What’s helping you move through this? What's helping this move through you?


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