When Fear Takes Over
I know a bit about hunkering down.
Three times since 2014, I’ve had to put my outer life on pause while I attended to the physical and emotional demands of life in a human body. The first was when my husband became ill with the gastric cancer that took his life. Less than a year and a half later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two years after that I needed a hip replacement.
Now as COVID-19 makes its way darkly through our world, leveling any pretense we have of invulnerability no matter who or where we are, I feel compelled to remind you of what is possibly the most constant truth about our existence here, which is that life is fucking hard.
I mean, it definitely would be much easier to be a human being if we didn’t have bodies or egos.
But we do, and so here we are. Outward life is shutting down. As a dear friend of mine said recently, “we are holding so much right now, so many big things and small things”. Venues are being shuttered, trips canceled. Toilet paper has disappeared from store shelves, concerts I was looking forward to are being canceled, my sons’ schools are closed. My cuticles are shot from all the handwashing.
What this feels like and what I think about it are there on the one hand, both fired up in a kiln of anxiety into behaviors such as social media addiction and finally reaching my target heart rate on the bike one last time since I am now not able to justify going to the Y. I find myself careening between seriously dark humor (“I guess I’m going to have to stop picking my nose”) and anxiety that leaves me foggy and unproductive.
On the other hand, there’s my gut. My intuition has been patiently calm about this pandemic in a way that even I have hardly experienced in my life. I suppose when an intuitive tells you she feels a stillness of infinite depths about this very serious crisis, we all should listen to what it has to say. So let’s all wash our hands and have a listen.
Really challenging circumstances give us the opportunity to do an audit on limiting beliefs and how much fear we’ve been tolerating. When the worst is happening, we get to pick open and sort through what thought patterns we’ve empowered, the assumptions we’ve made and the expectations we have, and whether any of that is really serving us.
Often it is not. Fear serves the purpose of motivating us to gather more information. But we have turned into a civilization that processes everything we experience through fear. As we collectively are forced to stop and be still, the hard, hard work of adjusting our thinking and adapting to a new set of expectations for our lives will be a huge task. Besides the fact that we humans generally despise change of any kind, let alone abrupt disruptions to our daily routines, there is a whole set of other things we resist even more, such as:
~Our mortality. We avoid dealing with the reality of our corporeal existence in all its forms. We worship youth and youthful beauty. We deny the fact that every single one of us on this planet is living in a body whose primary design feature is built-in obsolescence and vulnerability. We believe illness is a failure or a battle to be won. We make the differently-abled in our societies invisible.
~Our emotions. I was chatting with an acquaintance about all of the school events that are being canceled and briefly mentioned what I supposed was the uncertainty of my eldest son’s high school graduation ceremony. I started to cry and had to fight the reflex to make a joke about how overwrought I was. Internally, I took myself to task for being afraid and for not “being in the moment” since to date no one has said anything about graduation and it’s three months away.
Here’s the thing, though: by minimizing and shutting myself down, I make the fear worse. If we are really sincere in releasing it, we will see fear for what it is–a feeling which will come and go. Clamping down on it makes it stronger, makes it clamor for our attention, and makes it take hostages. Soon it is a part of every other feeling we have.
Grief about our losses, about “the big things and the small things”, and the emotional labor it requires is the hardest job we will ever do while we’re here on earth. And every single one of us will be assigned what seems like more grief than we can ever bear, more than once. There will be losses for everyone in this pandemic, and we are allowed to have feelings about it all, and they don’t have to make sense.
Then, of course, there is our deep resistance to uncertainty. As a human living among my fellow humans, doing the work that I do for as long as I have, I can report that we are never so uncomfortable as when we face the unknown. Generally, I believe we pay lip service to concepts such as living in the moment, being present to what is, surrendering to the flow of life, and living one day at a time. Then when the shit hits the fan we see how really, we’ve just been operating with a high tolerance for fear and anxiety and it’s flattened our lives into merely existing.
But there’s an opportunity in crisis. Of course, we are all free to harden into the brittlest versions of ourselves. That is our choice. We also have the ability to soften. Hard times ask us, “Did you really believe that stuff about believing in a Universe that cares about you and that has a divine plan for your life?”
It can take some time to re-establish faith in that idea, especially when life is not unfolding to plan.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer so soon after my sons had lost their father, for several months I struggled with the idea that perhaps I had helped him die to prepare our family for my own death. I barely slept, night after night awake and obsessed with trying to figure out how this had happened. How had I missed the signs that could have prevented me from orphaning my own children? I could not conceive of living in a world where that would be our story.
When I had made choices about my treatment and surgery was scheduled, we went to San Diego for the holidays and I finally let go. I slept like it was my job, spent potently joyful time with friends who are like family, celebrated my 50th birthday in style, and on New Year’s Eve as I was drifting off to sleep, was gifted with an unexpected message of hope. My kids called to me to watch the ball drop on TV and in that space between wakefulness and sleep I suddenly knew, in every cell of my body, in my heart, and to the depths of my soul, that I was going to be fine. I was going to die of something else, and not for a long time. And once I knew that, I never stopped knowing it.
I didn’t tell too many people about my hip replacement because I was starting to feel like the identified patient of Exeter, NH. I wouldn’t have been surprised if people had started to cross the street when they saw me. But now, when we’re dealing with real not imagined contagion, I think it’s important to acknowledge how I was delivered back to myself in the wake of those monster waves that smacked me over.
The plain truth of it is this: no one wants to pay the price of admission for the gifts that can come from hardship. No one. If you had told me what would happen as a result of choosing to face what was actually happening in my life as well as how fear had taken over my understanding of hardship, I might not have believed you. I was not unaffected by life, and there was no formula for rising above what was happening. I truly suffered. I struggled to understand. I argued with my intuition on a daily basis until I was exhausted. I went through all the things.
There was no catch. It was just hard.
And on the other side? I am comfortable in my own skin and joyful, the best version of myself I’ve ever been. I am vibrantly healthy. I am in love with a man who makes me ridiculously happy. I am so proud of my children, who are also doing amazingly well, and when they aren’t driving me crazy they are making me laugh harder than ever and inspiring me to keep being a smartass.
I have the best relationships with my family, friends, and friends-who-are-like-family that I’ve ever had. I have so much fun with all of them. I have learned how to unwind for real, to be still, and to cherish the times when we must slow down.
It’s also worth noting that I simply do not have the energy for bullshit or drama or illusions anymore. All of that was washed off in the swash.
I was made ready to stand side by side with you as this next wave comes.
It will transform us all in very good ways, if we are willing to be honest.
So take a breath, Friends. Take three deep breaths. Take one more. Know that the center of your intuition is connected to everything you need to know and you can draw from it as much as you need. It will be there for you. You do not need certainty or brittleness to get through this.
You are allowed, however, to take a moment to get the seaweed out of your bathing suit before the next wave hits. Because that kind of discomfort is just inhumane.Back to all posts