On Running, Grounding, and Exploring the Inner Landscape

Last week I went on a much-needed vacation with a good friend, to the middle of nowhere Indiana. The goal: to sit in an Air B and B, turn off my computer and electronics, read, walk/run, and listen to what my inner self might want to tell me. Like it has been for everyone, this COVID pandemic world has just gotten too big, and while the last year has been full of wonderful things, people, and experiences, I am just bone tired. Tired from trying to accomplish too much, tired from trying to find answers for existential questions, tired from trying to navigate moral dilemmas, tired from having the same conversations with myself in my head and never finding resolution, tired of people being so small-minded and hateful to each other.

Fortunately, this week away was exactly what I needed – my headspace quieted, I laughed, I ate really good food, and I explored landscapes….both in the external world and within myself. This post is my attempt to explore what I’ve been thinking about landscape in general, lately, and why these are features of life that we can’t afford to take for granted.

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I’ve been running for a bunch of years, but I finally identify as a runner. I guess I used to think that to be a “runner”, I had to run certain distances, or achieve certain paces, or look like a runner is supposed to look. I don’t feel that way anymore, and now think that if running resonates with a person in any way and they feel compelled to move forward at whatever speed and for whatever reason, they are a runner.

Running is hard alot of the time. I usually hate the first two miles of every single run, no matter what kinds of distances I’ve been able to master at that point. Those first two miles always require a working out of kinks, of warming up muscles, of opening the mind for the task ahead. Running is very much a mind game; we can physically run so much further than our minds believe and tell us. Those first two miles are always a period of settling, of the deep me telling my mind to bug off and be quiet for a bit – to lessen up on the rants about how cold it is, or windy, or how I’ve gained five pounds over the last year and I’ll have to put in 20 miles to try and stay thin and overwhelm sets in. As others have said, the mind is a great servant but a truly horrible master.

The thing is, I’ve discovered that if I can get past those first two miles, all will settle and I can usually hit a groove, and when I’m really lucky, the countless footsteps and miles pass in magic. There is also something about mile after mile of connecting my feet with the ground that feels right, feels solid, feels really human. Even when I hate running, I love running.

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I’m a fan of destination running and walking. Whenever I go on a trip somewhere, I really enjoy getting out and exploring with a run or a long, relaxing walk. I didn’t always do this, because I would let fear of the unknown and unfamiliarity with an area keep me from getting out, and especially because I typically can’t talk people into running with me and I didn’t want to venture out on my own. Now days though, my excitement about running in new places overshadows my tentativeness about the unfamiliar. I’ve learned from experience how much amazingness I would have missed out on in life if I let fear dictate all the time.

Running when I travel is a way for me to become acquainted with the landscape of whatever place I have found myself in. As I mentioned in other posts, I’ve really been digging into Celtic theology of late. It resonates with me so much because of it’s emphasis on the land and the sacredness of “place”. It seems to me, in our ever fast-paced world, that we take for granted the permanence and resilience of landscapes and nature. We zoom around in our cars to get to where we want to go….usually from one type of building or structure to another. Even our cars are fitted with shock absorbers and climate control which further separate us from what we are driving upon. We drive so fast from our starting places to our destinations that we miss so much of what we pass, and cannot really see or feel what is around is in the way that we can when we walk or run upon the land.

I’ve noticed on more than one occasion, that when I run or walk down familiar streets that I’ve ventured down countless times, that I will suddenly spot a new house that I had never seen before when I was driving, even though the house had always been there and driven by so many times. The same is with landscape….there are details and nuances that I completely miss when driving or riding as a passenger that I finally notice when I put my feet on the ground. When we don’t get our feet on the ground when moving from place to place, I think we lose a point of connection with the earth, and gravity, and of oneness with nature and all that is ancient.

In 2017, before he died, Celtic poet and theologian John O’Donohue spoke with Krista Tippet about landscape on the podcast On Being, and I loved what he had to say:

“Well, I think it makes a huge difference, when you wake in the morning and come out of your house, whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you, but in a totally different form, and if you go towards it with an open heart and a real, watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you.

And I think that that was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination — that landscape wasn’t just matter, but that it was actually alive. What amazes me about landscape — landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence, where you can truly receive time.”

This is what running (or long walks) helps me with – to feel the aliveness of all things and places, and to recognize that those things have lessons for me as well as a way to firm up my rightful belonging in this world, no matter where I may find myself. When we take the time to explore new places, fully present, we can discover that those landscapes are not dead, but are pulsing with life and personality and are so generous in sharing with us what they have to offer.

Humans are so young, having only existed for tens of thousands of years. You and I, individually, are younger still, our lifespans of 70 to 80 years only the most momentary flashes of existence on this Earth. But landscapes, and trees, and mountains, and rivers, and rocks….these are all the ancient ones. They have carried on the longest, and have seen what passes and what remains, and from that, have wisdom to impart to us if we’ll slow down enough to listen and receive it.

On my trip last week, over about 3 and a half days, I got in about 15 miles of running and walking….on back Indiana farmland dirt roads, in Amish country, and along the shores of Lake Michigan. These miles were a mix of me pondering questions, listening to music as I trotted by houses and barns and fields, and having deep conversations with my friend while keeping our feet just clear of the frigid tide lapping sand and pebbles on the lake.

There seems to be something about putting in those footsteps outside in nature and landscape, that helps work words and ideas deep within yourself. I enjoy strong, contemplative conversation more when walking with people outside then having the same talks while sitting inside in an artificial environment. Maybe it’s because it feels like we are working together toward something….moving forward physically while intermingling our thoughts and words and intentions, and carrying them toward their own destination.

I also think that there’s something different about the rest one gets after the walking and running as opposed to rest attempted following little movement, or being stuck inside. Our bodies were made for movement, and somehow, and I don’t know how, that movement seems to affect us at a soul level. And then, when we rest from the movement we were designed for, it feels easier to enter soul rest. Our minds, and souls, and bodies are connected….we do ourselves a massive disservice when we try to compartmentalize who we are as creatures, animals, interconnected sentient beings.

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I’ve suffered from panic attacks since I was about 7. I’ve written about these before, so won’t go into great detail here. But, the short version is, I’ve always feared the idea of eternity, and this one long linear progression forward forever, and my imagined destination of ultimately being utterly alone. I had an intense experience during this vacation week – maybe I’ll write about it one day -that I think may have addressed this core fear that I’ve carried for decades. That’s super hopeful for me, but what I really want to talk about related to my panic attacks is the importance of getting a hold of oneself during them by getting grounded.

One of my best friends is a mental health and EMDR therapist, and she has helped me out on more than one occasion, in the middle of the night, when I’ve called her, shaking in absolute terror and unable to extricate myself from the grip of completely irrational thought and fear. Part of the trick to getting out of a panic attack is to reconnect the mind with the body. My friend taught me how to use different tactics to ground myself, to help my mind settle back down into me as it attempts to break out of my head and fly out on its own, leaving my body in a distressed state in the process.

She gave me a rubbery piece of plastic, made with short rubbery finger-like projections, to grab when I felt a panic attack coming. The type of plastic or what it was originally made for wasn’t the point….basically, she wanted to give me something to hold that had a unique and appealing texture, that would really engage my senses through my fingers and help my body and brain focus on what I was touching. Then, while having a panic attack, she would have me talk to myself, remind myself of who am I, where I am, and details about me.

“My name is Julie, I’m living outside Boston, it is 2016, I’m in my bathroom. I am safe, I am sitting here, I can feel the floor beneath me supporting me, and I can feel this piece of textured plastic between my fingers.”

And weirdly enough, doing those kinds of things would shock me back to myself, and usually, my panicked terror would subside as quickly as it arose. I also learned that intentionally turning on music while having a panic attack would make a huge difference…..violin and cello music are my heart instruments, and that type of music would soothe me. And quite interestingly, I discovered that if I listen to Ripple by The Grateful Dead any time I am having a panic attack, I will calm and fall asleep within minutes. The trick has always been to remember to play the song when in a frazzled state.

We need to make it a self-care practice to ground ourselves more, I think. We rush around all the time, get stuck in our heads, and forget that we are “whole” beings. Music, and art, and yoga, and mindful washing the dishes, and long walks, and runs….these aren’t just gratuitous luxuries…..these are crucial to our ultimate well being.

Side note: I love the Tarot depictions in this video. Tarot has become an unexpected and helpful companion of late.

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As I mentioned earlier, I am intrigued about Celtic theology’s discussion of external landscape. Having grown up on a huge ranch in South Texas, landscapes have always held tremendous meaning for me. However, as I dove further, I discovered, in a way that I never had before, that each of us have our own internal landscapes as well. The thing is, until we are aware of them, they can largely go completely unnoticed, which is a shame, because they are an important part of ourselves and our ways of being in the world.

O’Donohue wrote a book called the Inner Landscape, which I listened to on audio. It was one of those books where I just kept welling up with giddiness while listening, because it resonated as so very true to me. As I started paying more attention, I began to realize that other people I frequently draw from have also talked about the Inner Landscape. Here is a passage that I love:

“And at some point, I thought, well, I’ve been really lucky to see many, many places. Now, the great adventure is the inner world, now that I’ve spent a lot of time gathering emotions, impressions, and experiences. Now, I just want to sit still for years on end, really, charting that inner landscape because I think anybody who travels knows that you’re not really doing so in order to move around—you’re traveling in order to be moved. And really what you’re seeing is not just the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall but some moods or intimations or places inside yourself that you never ordinarily see when you’re sleepwalking through your daily life. I thought, there’s this great undiscovered terrain that Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton and Emily Dickinson fearlessly investigated, and I want to follow in their footsteps.” -Pico Iyer, from Becoming Wise with Krista Tippet

Our deepest inner selves are full of uncharted territory, because most of us never take the time to really get to know ourselves, or really even know that we really are more than an inch deep. As O’Donohue has said, our inner selves are full of mystery and contradictions and questions and wisdom. This is all begging to be explored, and is terribly important work for us to engage in:

“So many people come to me asking how I should pray, how I should think, what I should do. And the whole time, they neglect the most important question, which is, how should I be?” -Meister Eckhart

We can’t know how to be until we truly learn who we are…when we gain a sense of where we came from and where we are going, what we love, what moves us, what stirs us. In fact, the older I get, the more I think that most people really have absolutely no clue who they are. We all keep looking around expecting everyone to show us and tell us who we are, and we try to copy what we see others doing hoping that it will all fit, and we risk coming to the end our lives never having truly met ourselves or lived authentically out of that knowing.

It is not only the ancient landscapes of our external world that can teach us how to live. There are depths within us that tap into the source of all existence with abundant offering if we would be brave enough to do those deep dives inward. The thing is, just as we can let fear keep us from exploring our external surroundings, fear can also dissuade us from exploring our rich internal landscapes. I think this is because of several things:

  1. Many of us just have a natural bent to only surround us with the familiar We may not like the status quo, but it feels familiar, and so, seems the safest option.
  2. We are taught so much by society and bad religion not to trust ourselves, not to listen to our intuition and gut wisdom. When some of us finally find the freedom to do so, it takes practice to reach that place of trust and living out of our own innate wisdom.
  3. Going inward does not result in reaching a final destination. Mystery is endless, and endlessly knowable, and the work of unveiling it doesn’t stop. As far as I can tell, one’s inner landscapes won’t be tidily mapped out after only a few years of exploration, but will continue until death, at the very least. This can be a daunting journey for people if they aren’t prepared for the long haul.
  4. And like running in new places that you’ve never been, doing the dive inward to explore those landscapes can be scary because you don’t always know what you’ll find. Will you discover that you’ll have to do the difficult work of releasing identities that you’ve carried for a long time? Will you discover that maybe you have areas that you need to work on, that maybe you’ve been ignoring? Will you unearth painful memories and traumas that are terrifying and unnerving to look at and address head-on? But to this I say….WHAT IF you discover the most amazing things about yourself….that you are good and resilient and deserving and divine? These discoveries might totally be worth the hero’s journey inward. I can say from my own personal experience that the inward journey is the hardest journey I’ve ever taken, but the most rewarding.

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I think about God and the Divine so very differently than I used to. Part of this has come because I’ve gotten braver about investigating both external and internal landscapes and finding that what I grew up being taught about Reality does not, in fact, feel very true to me.

The late theologian Paul Tillich used to describe God as “the Ground of Being, not personal, but not less than personal”. I love this so much and have clung to it for years. I totally identify as an atheist, not as one that thinks the universe is devoid of intelligence and magic and personality, but that it isn’t run by some being with human projections vomited all over it.

I love the idea of Grounding, and that God or whatever you want to call it that is behind everything that is, is supporting us, and providing a firm, solid place for us to “be”. Our external landscapes are a way for us to ground ourselves in our physical existence in this material world as animalistic humans, and our internal landscapes help ground the parts of ourselves that aren’t quite as physical….our consciousness, our spirit-selves, however you want to describe it. We exist in a reality that is ever changing and never static, but the requirement of permanence is not necessary for us to be OK. We can be grounded and connected and “OK” even in the midst of constant movement, and evolving relationships, and the exploration of mystery. I have no clue if I’m making any sense here with what I’m trying to say. We’ll go with it anyway.

So, what were my takeaways from my vacation week?

It was a reminder of how good it is to slow WAY down, turn off all the extraneous noise, eat nourishing food mindfully, breathe fresh air, do life with people that are important to you, and feel the dirt beneath your feet. Mostly it was a call to return to intentional grounding and connection with what is sacred to me, and to remember to listen to the wisdom of the ancient landscapes around me- to stop being swayed so much by what is artificial and young and brief.

To sum it it all up in O’Donohue’s wise words: To “stop traveling too fast over false ground.” It is time to let my soul take me back.

For One Who is Exhausted, A Blessing by John O’Donohue, published as Benedictus

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

Shaming Yourself Over Past Decisions

 

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Photo credit: Morgan Thompson

“Well—I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can’t exist without the other. As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how. But you—wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking ‘what if,’ ‘what if.’ ‘Life is cruel.’ ‘I wish I had died instead of.’ Well—think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no—hang on—this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”
— Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch)

I went for lunch after church yesterday with a good friend.  It was finally warm enough to eat outside, and so we did, but still sat as close to the outdoor fire pit as possible.

I always appreciate it, when you get to the point in friendships where you can bypass small talk and get straight at what you really want to discuss, what is really pressing and feels most important at the time -when you don’t have to lay groundwork to have meaningful conversation.  Besides, there’s been more than enough conversation about the weather over the last few months to cover the rest of the year.

As my friend and I ate, we talked about the things that are currently giving us anxiety – the unforeseen things that lay out of ahead of us that we can’t control.  We looked back at decisions we made months and years ago and ask if they were the right decisions. Did they set us up for the unsettlement we feel right now, or will they one day prove to be the right decisions all along?

When people ask me why I did certain things throughout my life, I respond that they seemed like good ideas at the time. And this is true. I don’t tend to make a habit of willingly making stupid decisions that I know will precipitate unfavorable consequences, at least not regarding decisions that carry alot of weight.  Even so, in the attempt to make good decisions, I’ve made some really bad ones.

One of my great struggles in life is shaming myself for past decisions that didn’t turn out so well. The old adage says that hindsight is 20/20, but that’s not entirely true in my case.  I have much stronger vision for pinpointing every single mistake I made and beating myself up over them year after year after year. My memory occludes the good choices I have made – the places where I stopped going in an unhelpful direction and purposely turned and started walking on a better path, or the times when I actually exhibited some stellar parenting skills, or the times when I really loved people unselfishly.

Nope, in my mind I can only see where I failed my kids, my friends, and myself. If only I had done this thing… If only I had said this instead of that… If only I had just walked away….or come closer.

I recognize that alot of my self-shaming and anxiety come about because of beliefs I internalized at a young age.  For one, I believed for years that God had a narrowly defined path for each of us to take in life, and it was our job to find and stay on that path, lest we risk screwing everything up.  I also grew up in a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture that offered little grace for mistakes and fumbling around trying to find one’s path. This kind of worldview only served to help me continue to fail.  How could I ever stay on that one narrow path? How could I suck it up and gut my way through life when I didn’t understand how life works?

Fortunately for me, my understanding of God and failure and bad decisions has morphed over time.  I’m gradually beginning to see those poor decisions of the past to be good things, in the sense that they have become my teachers.  I still sometimes doubt myself, and wonder if certain choices I made are going to cause everything to blow up in my face at some point. But when I’m at my best, I look at those “mistakes” through the following lenses.

  1. I did the best I could with the information I had at the time.

I know I’m not the only person that does this – looking back on something we did or a choice we made and berating ourselves for not having taken some important fact or piece of information into consideration.  What I usually discover, though, is that particular fact usually isn’t available until after we’ve made out decision.  In essence, we shame ourselves for not making decisions based on information that we either don’t know or doesn’t exist yet. That is just lunacy, really.

I think this kind of shaming is made worse considering how much information we have readily available at our fingertips these days with technology and The Google. I know that I often unconsciously think that I just put in the right search phrase, or read the right book or website, or listen to the right person, I’ll find the answer I need for a particular decision.  I conclude, if I can’t find that answer, it’s because I didn’t search hard enough.

In many ways, this ‘information at your fingertips in less than 10 seconds” has not served us well because it keeps us frantically searching…or, at least it does this to me.  We need to be able to offer ourselves the grace to stop the information search at some point, make the necessary decision, and go with it, come whatever may.  To qutoe Theodore Roosevelt (and I haven’t fact-checked that he actually said, but it’s still true): “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”  That’s all we can do. We humans are not omniscient.

2. My mistakes and “bad” decisions are my teachers because they show me what doesn’t work.

I read somewhere a long time ago that Thomas Edison said something about not viewing his invention failures as real problems because they taught him what doesn’t work. Putting a positive framing on these kinds of things can really make all the difference, especially if you have the right end goal in mind.

The goal of life is not to be perfect, at least not in the traditional sense of the word where we only do things the right way, offering up beautiful, always up to standard, results. This is entirely unrealistic, and misses the whole point of being human…or divine, for that matter. A much more helpful way to look at perfection is the idea of completeness.  The goal in life, I think, is to become complete, integrated, and whole.  This takes some work and alot of grace, and it certainly doesn’t happen through getting everything “right” all the time.  We become complete and whole by doing shadow work (see Carl Jung) and wrestling with the sides of ourselves that we don’t always want to see or acknowledge. When we face our “bad” decisions, we are at a wonderful gateway to begin facing and uncovering the aspects of ourselves that are in pain and need healing and integration.

“It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at.”
― Elizabeth GilbertBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

3. Who are we to say with certainty what is good, or what is bad?

I’ve quoted him a billion times, but my favorite saying of Richard Rohr is “Everything belongs.”  If this is true, and I believe it is, it means that there is nothing that is not redeemable. God wastes nothing. How, then, can anything be completely, and eternally, bad?  OK, all of you people that are immediately wanting to ask me questions about the bad-ness of rape, and war, and the Holocaust…I saw that coming.  And I ask the same myself – how can those not be bad?  At some level, they are horrible, un-excusable, evil, wretched. But I firmly believe, that somehow, God can envelop them, hold them, and incorporate them into goodness.  I don’t know how; it’s a mystery. After reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, written about the Holocaust, I’m convinced that deeper meaning and good can be found when you push through the horrors that appear on the surface of life.

I also look to the idea of yin and yang from the Tao.  Now, I”m certainly not a Taoist, or expert in Eastern thought, but it holds meaning for me. This is what I  can see from the little I understand:

  • Opposites, or the dual nature of things, balance each other out.  They create wholeness when brought together
  • There are no absolutes in life, everything is interconnected. It would be difficult to say that something is completely all bad, or all good, especially when we have a limited understanding of life and can only see one little piece of the proverbial elephant, as it were. We judge good and bad through our own filters.
  • Everything is changing and is in a state of process – what is now may be something different later.

And to end this point I’m attaching a famous Buddhist story I’ve heard many times from various people that makes the point quite well, I think.  I stole this exact version from David Allen.

One day a man’s horse runs away. And his neighbor comes over and says, to commiserate, “I’m so sorry about your horse.” And the farmer says “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” The neighbor is confused because this is clearly terrible. The horse is the most valuable thing he owns.

But the horse comes back the next day and he brings with him 12 feral horses. The neighbor comes back over to celebrate, “Congratulations on your great fortune!” And the farmer replies again: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

And the next day the farmer’s son is taming one of the wild horses and he’s thrown and breaks his leg. The neighbor comes back over, “I’m so sorry about your son.” The farmer repeats: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

Sure enough, the next day the army comes through their village and is conscripting able-bodied young men to go and fight in war, but the son is spared because of his broken leg.

And this story can go on and on like that. Good. Bad. Who knows?

Moral of this post? We need to stop shaming ourselves over our perceived mistakes.  We’re OK, and if we’re wise we’ll know to learn from everything that happens to us.  And for all of us that worry that our choices might ruin our kids lives (and I”m preaching to myself here):

  1. God (Life, the Universe, whatever you call it)  is working harder for our children than we are
  2.  We don’t know everything; there is no way we can completely predict what will hurt our children or make them stronger.  Those little guys are amazingly resilient.
  3.  Apologize frequently, ask for feedback, praise them often, and teach them how to contact a therapist when they are adults.

Back to lunch with my friend.  We are usually much harder on ourselves than others are. My friend beats herself up over choices and worries about how she will handle certain circumstances that the future might bring.  I, as a somewhat objective outsider, am wicked impressed with so many of the hard, difficult decisions she’s made…who cares if they turn out perfectly or not. I’m inspired by her bravery to step out and do life, and be creative, and love others.

Yes, there will be people who will love to point out our flaws and where we royally screwed up in life. But to quote the wonderful Brené Brown:

“UnMarketing: “Don’t try to win over the haters; you’re not the jackass whisperer.”   And.. “Nothing has transformed my life more than realizing that it’s a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands.”
― Brené BrownDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

 

 

 

 

 

When You Live Life in the Hypothetical

hypothetical
Photo credit: Martin Brigden

Logos
"Why wonder about the loaves and the fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands. 
If you say them with love and the felt ferocity of that love and 
the felt necessity of that love, the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speakng, and don't worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all of those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy. 
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word spoken with love.
-Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early

I live life way too much in my head. In fact, it is a thriving cerebral swamp of stories about what has happened in the past, what is happening now, and what could potentially happen in the future. I daily struggle against this quagmire of imaginations, and have to constantly evaluate what is reality and what is not….I’m really good at convincing myself of things that aren’t true.

My favorite spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, and Richard Rohr, among others, frequently teach that the past and the future are both illusions.  The only thing that is real is the present, the NOW. Like so many others, I’m horrible at living in the Now. But even then, I’m not so great at living in what really happened in the Past either.  I tend to spend most of my time in the hypothetical past and the hypothetical future.

When I was young, my mother made a couple of really harsh statements to me that have stuck with me since.  Now, this is not a “my parents’ ruined my life” post.  My mother was a wonderfully complex person with alot of flaws and alot of strengths and virtues.  And I’ve made enough tremendous belly flops as a parent to know that we are all going to say really stupid things to our kids at times.

These two comments, in particular, wormed their way into my psyche, and I internalized them as being representative of my identity. I spent the next half of my life striving against those beliefs to prove they weren’t true. Every time I did fail, it just seemed to reinforce them. Actually, I think my believing them just became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here’s the point I’m trying to get to: in my efforts to avoid living out the beliefs of those statements my mom made to me, I would conjure up every possible hypothetical situation related to them and come up with contingency plans to avoid hypothetical outcomes. Can you say stressful? It is exhausting to try and plan ahead for every possible damning dilemma that might arise.

One of the statements was about my inability to keep a house clean, take care of my things, etc. The truth is, until I hit my mid-20s I was an absolute slob. There’s just no denying it.  But I set out to prove my mother wrong…that I could, in fact, keep house with the best of them, and I vowed to not be judged by people that would come to my house because there wouldn’t be anything to judge.

Stop laughing, y’all.  I know this sounds ridiculous, but it was really the place I was in.  I would frantically try to control things to keep the house tidy. I would have anxiety attacks every time I failed, or the kids made a mess, or something wasn’t done to “my” specifications. It took me until I was in my early 30s to realize that all the people that came to my house weren’t the types of people that would judge how it looked.  Instead, I was killing myself trying to please “hypothetical” people – the snarky, snobby people that would surely cross my thresshold at some point and sneer at my home.  These hypothetical people are relentless…you can never please all of them, and they all have different opinions about how things should be anyway.

On a quick side note, it took me 25 years to realize that the hurtful statements my mom made about me…weren’t about me.  They were never about me.  She was simply putting her own fears about hypothetical situations onto me.  And when I say stupid, hurtful things to my kids…it’s never really about them.  It’s just me projecting my own hurts and fears onto them.

Like most people, I struggle with “what-ifs” about the future, and I try to make fail-safe plans. But I struggle more with the hypothetical past. I conjure up all the stories about the way things could have gone, and in my head, I struggle to figure out how I would have done things if one of those stories had been reality instead of what actually happened. If your brain is tangling up with that, welcome to what the inside of my head looks like.

Somehow, in my mind, I tend to believe that the way I got to where I am is not legitimate and I have to somehow justify myself through coming up with plans for scenarios in the past that never occurred.  For example, my parents were very generous and paid for a huge portion of my undergraduate education.  I worked part-time and got scholarships, but they definitely footed the bulk of the bill.  At the time, I would look at some of my friends who had no support from family, and how they worked and took out loans to pay for college by themselves. I would feel guilty that I didn’t have to do those things to get through school, and come up with a complex plan in my head of how I would have put myself through if my parents hadn’t stepped up.

Here’s another example…(most of these hypothetical situations deal with money or my white privilege or something like that.)  I’m single now after a long marriage, and am putting myself through nursing school, paying a mortgage on a house, etc.  My money situation is currently secure because of the way my ex and I worked out our divorce settlement and I freelance on the side. But I still feel the compulsive need to figure out in my head how I would have made everything work up until now if I was like so many other single moms struggling really hard to make ends meet.  Or, like so many of my nursing school friends who are having to take out massive loans to complete the program.

When I take on these hypothetical past situations in my head, I will almost work myself into anxiety or panic attacks when I can’t figure out solutions for the imagined problems that didn’t actually happen.  Essentially, I spend most of my life in the past striving to justify myself and the choices I’ve made by proving, in my imagination, that I could have survived other realities.  I spend the other portion of my life living in the hypothetical future, thinking of what goals I need to reach within certain timeframes to also justify and legitimize where I am right now.

This, as you all must know, is a complete exercise in futility. I’m only fighting with ghosts and apparitions.  The fact is, the only reality that will ever happen is the reality that is happening right now. If my parents hadn’t paid for my undergrad, that would have been my reality at the time and I would have made choices regarding that reality. But, reality was that they paid for college, and it helped get me to where I am now. Arguing with that is dumb.

The same with my present situation. My reality is that I’m in nursing school, I freelance write on the side, and I am doing OK money-wise. This is what life has brought to me and arguing with it or hypothesizing about every possible permutation of what reality could be is saying that reality (or life or the divine) isn’t good, isn’t what I need at this moment. I am where I am right now, and it is all grace. When I argue with what happened and try to control what will happen in a way that makes me feel validated, I’ve pushed away grace.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

Julie’s interpretation of this verse:  You’re perfectly OK, right here, right now because you trust what life brings you. You don’t ask questions, you don’t try to rationalize anything. You just accept your “is-ness” as a gift. And since you know that life brought everything to you and not the other way around, you know bragging about it is silly.

So, all of this to say…don’t be like me.  Don’t fritter away so many of the good Presents of your life to dwell on the dead Past or the never graspable Future with all of their hypothetical could have beens or might be’s.  All we have is Now.  It is a gift.