“Well, at least it can’t get any worse!” Well intentioned people often say this when someone experiences a series of catastrophic events, such as a cancer diagnosis, followed by the loss of a job.” followed by bankruptcy, followed by…. Well, you are catching the drift, or more accurately the chain of events that can lead people to say, “Well, at least it can’t get any worse.” While well intentioned, this comment provides little comfort to those whose lives are cascading out of control. They know that not only can things get worse, they often do. They know that one catastrophic event can lead, as if tipping over the first in a long line of dominoes, to a cascading sequence of events – job loss, bankruptcy, long-term side effects of treatment — over which the individual may have little control. Bad things happen to us all: randomly, unevenly, for no apparent purpose. Ultimately, we have less control than we may believe over the dominoes that topple over in our lives when a catastrophic event occurs. What we do have control over is how we respond to the suffering that ensues. Years ago, a friend who was studying Buddhism tried explaining the concept of karma to me. She said, “It’s like this bag of sh** is handed to you with no instructions for what to do with it. You can either smear it all over everything, including yourself, creating a stinking mess, or you can use it to grow a beautiful garden.” As the child of avid gardeners, I was able to understand this analogy. I can take suffering and use it to grow a garden. Albert Camus said,
In the midst of hate,
I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears,
I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos,
I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
In the midst of winter,
I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy.
For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me,
within me, there’s something stronger – something better – pushing right back.
Suffering, even cascading suffering, does not need to be the end the story nor define who we are. The suffering that happens to us can be a beginning, rather than an end. When life goes from bad to worse, as it often does, I have a choice. I can spend the rest of my life sitting in a stinking mess or I can choose to believe, in the words of Camus, that “no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” It is my choice to live as though I believe this to be true and eventually I will.
Let’s go grow ourselves some gardens!
The saying, “Embrace Vulnerability,” seems to be everywhere lately, including on a birthday card I received from my cousin I visited last month in California. While there, we had many meaningful conversations about our own journeys in search of self-acceptance, joy, and authenticity.
Let me state clearly, I hate feeling vulnerable. My readers who have survived a traumatic, life-altering event have experienced vulnerability at its worse and have learned to “numb vulnerability.” That seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do in a moment when our very existence (literally or figuratively) is at risk.
However, here is the catch and the real quote for today from a talk given by Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, at the 2010 TedX conference in Houston (video of full talk is at the bottom of this post):
The problem is that you cannot selectively numb vulnerability. . . .when we numb [vulnerability], we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness, and then we are miserable.
In her research, Dr. Brown has found that people
. . . who really [had] a sense of worthiness. . . .[had] a strong sense of love and belonging. . . . They fully embraced vulnerability [emphasis added]. They believed that what made them vulnerable, made them beautiful. .
I have come to believe that what holds us back from embracing fully our journey to a new normal after trauma is our difficulty in learning to embrace our own vulnerability. A defensive action taken when our lives, at least as we have known them, are threatened becomes a barrier to our ability to once again experience joy, gratitude, and happiness, and we indeed remain miserable.
Learning to feel vulnerable, let alone embracing that vulnerability, is very, very difficult today. Our reptilian brains have become convinced that feeling vulnerable is a threat to our existence. Thus, our work on our journey to a new normal must include reprogramming our brains so we can once again experience the full range of emotions that makes us human.
After nearly five years, I still have a long way to go on allowing myself to feel vulnerable again, but reflecting on the need to embrace vulnerability is helping me to understand the next steps in my journey. All the deep breathing and other stress reducing activities I do, all the avoidance behavior I continue to engage in, will not truly address what is holding me back until I can learn to be vulnerable. I want to say, “once again,” but in reality I have spent most of my life trying to numb my sense of vulnerability, so perhaps this has made my journey harder than it needed to be. Therefore, I join the chorus of those saying, “Embrace your vulnerability,” and will keep saying it until I truly am able to do so.
“…happiness is the result of right actions. We prepare for it daily. We chart our course. . . . We may have fears about moving ahead. We can be courageous, however. . . . We can make a small beginning today.”
–from Each Day a New Beginning: Daily Meditations for Women. (c) 1981 The Hazelden Foundation. (New York: Harper/Hazelden), Meditation for May 25.
I have often heard said, and believe, that happiness is a choice. Sometimes we have to make the choice daily or even minute by minute. On Wednesday, I returned to my contract job site after being gone for nearly three weeks. Not only was I returning to the job site after working from home on my own schedule throughout the holidays, but I was starting the work day with the project director. Now this is a person with whom I get along very well, but nonetheless, this has been a very stressful contract and the first time I have worked full-time since I was diagnosed with cancer in 2008.
As I got in the car, I realized my heart was pounding and that I was breathing shallowly: both signs of anxiety and possibly fear. In fact, I had worked almost non-stop from December 27 through January 1 to pull together the work I was bringing to this meeting and realized I had fallen into an old pattern of working in an anxious, tense, and intense manner the whole time.
As I sat in the driveway, I made a conscious effort to close my eyes, slow my breathing, and to say, “Today, I choose to be happy. Today, I choose confidence over fear. Today, I choose to act and not react.” I then took the time to visualize the health and well-being of those near and dear, and those less well-known but who nonetheless were brought to mind that day.
Then I started the engine and drove to work. My meeting and my day went well. However, I will need to do this over and over again in the coming weeks as I finish up this nearly year-long contract and step into the unknown future that lies beyond.
Today’s quote is a poem, still wet with virtual ink, written by my sister today, as a gift for my 59th birthday. She beautifully captures the fact that, while we see the world differently, we have a bond built on the solid core of love.
The Golden Coin
Sister, you and I are two sides
of the same golden coin, always
looking at the world at a 180-degree
difference, yet we stand back to back,
supported by the same solid core.
by Denise Weaver Ross (c)2013
“Childhood is a magic place of dreams…where everything is possible and the best is just beginning”
–Joan Walsh Anglund (Childhood is a Time of Innocence, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1964)
January 3, 2013
Tomorrow, January 4th, I begin my 60th year on earth. We Americans call it being 59, but my dad always looked ahead. Growing up, I didn’t think too much about the new year. I thought all the fuss was about my birthday! To be honest, we usually did celebrate my birthday on New Year’s Day since everyone had the day off. Regardless, for me the new year has been more than a new calendar, but also a new year of my own life.
I have saved two of Joan Walsh Anglund’s little books of poems all these years. Her poetry may be considered trite by the literati, but her amusing little sketches have always made me feel warm and safe, childlike, full of wonder at how simple life really could be if we saw the world anew, through the eyes of the child within.
I stand at the threshold of my 60th year on earth, and once again feel I am in that magic place of dreams, believing everything is possible and, yes, that the best is yet to come.