Posted on | May 19, 2013 | 23 Comments
I wrote my last post a month ago. What happened to me? Did I get sick? Did I have an accident on my new bicycle? Did I have a family crisis? Did I win the lottery and depart on a world cruise?
No. None of those events happened. Nothing happened in my life except that it got a little busier.
I’m preparing a workshop that I will be presenting in June. I’m moving my therapy office from one location to another. Those two tasks alone have taken up much more time than I anticipated. But why did I allow them to get in the way of my writing here—especially when I know so many of you are as excited as I am about our journey and the prospect of learning to live a more meaningful life?
I lost sight of my values.
I am taken aback by how easy it was to slip back into living in a manner that is less conscious than I want my life to be. Slipping is part of the journey, and that is the topic of today’s post.
Before we go any further, let’s do a quick review about our journey toward a more values-based, meaningful life.
A few months ago, I posted How to live a more meaningful life: An open invitation. We had a great discussion about the idea that most of us are tired of living a life based on thinking, “When I acquire or achieve ______, then I’ll feel better or my life will be good or I will have ‘arrived.’”
The problem is that we spend much of our time trying to acquire or achieve whatever fills in that blank rather than fully living the life we have now. And then, when we finally acquire or achieve _______, we feel great for a while, but soon we’re back to feeling empty. And so we start striving toward the next __________ that we believe is bound to make us feel better.
The missing component is living by our values. Our values address questions like: What is my life about? What impact am I making on the world? How can I strive to live a meaningful life when I’m dealing with painful thoughts, feelings, and events?
Naming our values
Next, I posted Naming your values: The compass for a rich, meaningful life. I also created a worksheet to help us name our values and identify which ones are most important.
And then, we looked at whether we are actually living those values.
I found that three of my top values were community, kindness, and making a difference.
Writing the Bounce blog and conversing with you is one way I create and enjoy community, exercise kindness, and make a difference in the world.
So, how was I so easily distracted from my writing?
I slipped into old beliefs and habits.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with my preparing for a workshop or relocating my office. However, due to the time pressure I felt I was under, I reverted to my old thought process: “When I get my office moved, then I’ll be less stressed. After I present this workshop, then I’ll get back to writing.”
I fell right back into “When _________ happens, then everything will be okay, and then I can write my blog.” It’s an old habit, and I’m guessing it’s one that you struggle with, too.
It’s easy to slip back into “When-Then” thinking. We need to accept that slipping happens, and then take action when we recognize that we’ve slipped.
Getting back on our path
In my next post, I will present some techniques to help us get back on our path when we slip.
I’d like to hear how you are doing on this journey. Have you done some work on naming your values? How have you attempted to better incorporate your values into your daily life? What blocks you from fully living your values? Have you slipped like I did? What did you learn from slipping?
I appreciate your patience with me as I stumble over some rocks in my path. I hope I can turn them into stepping stones for us all!
Posted on | April 17, 2013 | 26 Comments
Three people are dead – including an 8-year-old boy who was watching his dad finish the Boston Marathon – and more than 150 people have been injured in the twin bomb blasts that occurred at the finish line of the iconic event. Several of the injured people are in critical condition. Some of the people near the blast zones had limbs amputated.
Once again, we ask ourselves, “How do we bounce back from this?”
Here’s how we do it:
We remember that Americans in general, and I believe, Bostonians in particular, are a naturally resilient lot. We have an innate chutzpah that brings us back from tragedy.
We rely on each other. Just as medical personnel and bystanders alike rushed toward the blasts to help, we reach out to each other for comfort and support and a safe place to vent our anger.
We refuse to be terrorized. Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe said, “This is a very tough town. We take only three things seriously here, and that’s sports, politics, and revenge. And the best revenge is the smiles of our children.” We carry on, our hearts heavy, but with the sheer determination to claim this country and the communities within it as our own. Communities that create the places where children continue to laugh and play.
We help. Someone from Arkansas called up a pizza restaurant in Boston and gave a donation so that the runners and other people dislocated due to the bombings could be fed while waiting to be reunited with their families. A pet hotel owner outside of Boston offered free board and care for the pets of first responders who had to work extra shifts.
We take responsibility seriously. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine in 1776. Each generation since can probably attest to the truth of these words as it points to one horrendous act or another. With the ease of finding information that promotes evil via the internet, our generation is faced with an abundance of people who can effortlessly and severely harm us. We must take responsibility for each other. This is not just a catchphrase, it is a call to action that each of us need take seriously, “If you see something, say something.”
We love. If you light a candle in a dark room, the darkness disappears. The light is not swallowed up by the dark. The light in our humanity is love. Remember to be loving. Remember to be kind. Remember to help. Remember that we are all connected.
We will not be terrorized.
We will bounce back.
What are your thoughts about terrorism in America? How do we help each other bounce back? You know my ideas and now I want to hear yours. Let’s talk about it in the comment section below.
Posted on | April 4, 2013 | 13 Comments
We accomplished our first step during my last post when we took an unwavering look at this formula: “When _______ happens, then I’ll feel better/be happier/consider myself successful.
We realized that this isn’t the best way to live our lives, because it keeps us waiting for the next thing to happen rather than living a rich, meaningful life right now. We decided to begin our journey by answering the questions, “What am I doing? And why?”
In order to answer those questions, we need to look at our goals and values.
In our American culture, it’s easy to get caught up in goals-based living as represented by the when-then formula above. Goals are useful. They help us stay on track and move forward in a positive direction. But goals alone don’t answer the questions, “What am I doing? And why?” We must examine the relationship between our goals and our values. Read more…
Posted on | March 19, 2013 | 76 Comments
I am on a path to make my life more rich and meaningful, and I encourage you to come along with me.
Because I’m approaching my 50th year, I find myself wondering about my place in the world. What is my purpose here? What will my friends and family say about me and my life when my life is over? Will I have an impact?
This musing leads me back to one question: What am I doing? When I answer this question, I feel a bit unsettled.
I’m starting to understand where my discomfort is coming from.
Like many people, I sometimes think, “When ______ happens, I’ll feel better, or my life will be good, or I’ll have ‘arrived,’ or I’ll be happy.” I set goals I want to accomplish so that any or all of those results will occur. And when I reach those goals, I do feel better!
But after a while, the luster fades, and I’m back to thinking, “When _____ happens . . .”
It’s a kind of treadmill. Researchers call it the hedonic treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation). This is the process most of us experience when we adapt quickly to a new element in our lives. If my goal is to get a new bicycle and I achieve my goal, I’m thrilled with my new bike! But after a few weeks, I adapt to the new bike that has entered my life, and I return to my pre-bike-acquisition emotional state.
I am back on the treadmill, aiming for my next goal. The familiar question looms in front of me: What am I doing? And why?
The missing piece
I’ve been studying a type of therapy known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I’m beginning to answer those questions in a way that eases my discomfort and leads me forward on the path to that richer, more meaningful life.
ACT is about accepting what we can’t control and committing to taking action. It encourages us to reflect on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it: this process helps me to understand what I’ve been overlooking in my life.
The component that I’ve been missing recently is values. Not that I don’t have any; I have numerous honorable values. But, I do not always allow them to be what my life is about. When I think about it, the most treasured times in my life have been centered on my values.
Many years ago, my partner at the time, Ruth, had metastatic breast cancer. You might think this was the worst time in my life. But it wasn’t. It was one of the best times in my life. When I look back, I see that those years were extraordinarily rich and filled with meaning. Ruth said in all sincerity that she would not have traded away her experience with cancer. And I felt the same way.
Why? Because we chose to live according to our values. We had a goal for Ruth to live as long as possible with her terminal illness, but the key was how we lived our life together during that time. We learned the art of nonresistance along the way, and so we valued acceptance. We accepted Ruth’s cancer along with the other ups and downs that come along in life.
We valued honesty and intimacy. We had many long, fruitful, cherished discussions about death, dying, and how to live our best lives. No topic was off limits. Our conversations wove a deep emotional tapestry of our relationship.
Because we knew our time together was limited, we valued being as present as possible with each other and in the world. People who experience life-limiting illnesses often say, “Colors seem more vivid, aromas smell better, and chirping birds sound like music.” I can testify that is true! Living fully in the moment does, indeed, bring more texture and brilliance to life.
I understand now that living according to my values was the essential factor that made my experience during that time so rich and meaningful. It wasn’t about goals or any thought that started with, “When _____ happens . . .”
Come with me?
I am on this path toward living a richer, more meaningful life. I’m not saying I want to live a stress-free always-happy life. I want my life to be purposeful, even when I’m struggling with sadness and depression. I want to keep meaning and intention in my awareness when things are going well and when life sucks. I want my answers to the questions, “What am I doing? And why?” to be aligned with my values.
Will you come with me?
Many of you have written to me telling me about your struggles in life, and in your stories I hear echoes of my own experiences. “If only I didn’t have depression/worries about my child/a broken heart/anxiety/lack of confidence/financial problems—I’d feel better.”
But what if you could lead a life full of purpose and meaning with those challenges? What if you could say, “I may be struggling right now, but I still know who I am and what I stand for, and I will act accordingly?”
I invite you to travel this path with me.
Will you come?
Let me know in the comments below.
We will delve more deeply into this topic in the following posts. Next up: What are values? What’s the difference between goals and values? And, how do I determine what my values are?
In subsequent weeks, we’ll discuss obstacles to living a values-based life and how we can learn to accept things that are out of our control in a gentle yet active way.
Recommended reading: The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris.
Posted on | February 22, 2013 | Leave a Comment
I just wanted to let you know that Bounce looks a little funky right now because I’m in the middle of switching hosting companies and we’re having some technical difficulties. All of my content and posts are here, though, so feel free to read to your heart’s content! I’m just trying to get all the cool stuff on the right side of the page back!
This is what happens when you have a therapist try to do tech stuff!
Thanks for your patience!
Posted on | February 9, 2013 | 29 Comments
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. ~ Confucius
By now, you know how life works.
We stand up and we fall down again, just like a toddler learning how to walk.
There are many ways to pick yourself back up and I’m presenting you with 55 of them to get you started.
Use one or two that you like the most or mix and match to your heart’s content.
Text in this color means that it is linked to a helpful article on that topic so make sure to check it out.
Okay, go get your bounce on!
1. Accept the reality of your situation. Face the facts – it’s happening.
2. Realize that change is always going to be in your life. Expect it.
“I always thought things would calm down and get easier. I’m beginning to think that’s not going to happen.” Phoebe Howard, age 99.
4. Be nice to yourself. Treat yourself as you would your best friend.
5. Remember that everyone has flaws. Everyone. You’re a part of the human race so you’re bound to make mistakes.
6. Practice mindfulness by noticing your thoughts and feelings, but have no judgment about them.
7. Resistance is like a Chinese Finger Trap. The more you struggle, the tighter you’re held in the trap.
8. Be flexible and open in your way of thinking. It will allow you to problem-solve more effectively and accept your reality more easily.
9. Have a tribe. Social support is absolutely essential in bouncing back in life.
10. Talk about your difficulties with trusted friends and family members. You don’t have to tough it out. Talk it out instead.
12. See if there is a gift hidden within your troubles. The sand that irritates the oyster eventually becomes a pearl.
13. Develop post-traumatic growth. The basics are being optimistic and framing your struggles as meaningful (finding the gifts and opportunities in them.)
15. Remember that you’ve made it through tough times before. And you’re still here to talk about it.
16. Instead of wasting energy resisting what’s happening in your life, accept what is and use that energy to enjoy the good things in your world.
17. Think about kaleidoscopes. The pattern is beautiful, but when it gets shaken up, a wonderful new pattern can emerge.
18. Take a break.
19. Find something that makes you laugh really hard.
20. Have a mentor. Find someone you trust and admire and use them as your go-to person for advice, support, and guidance.
21. Remember that your thoughts aren’t always true.
22. Remember that it’s okay to have fun, smile, and laugh sometimes even when you are in the worst of situations.
23. Just because you struggle with something doesn’t mean you’re not resilient. It means you’re human.
24. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone.
25. Sometimes things really do suck. No one said you have to like the difficulty in front of you.
26. Look up. Get out of your head and actually look up from time to time. What do you see that you didn’t notice before?
30. Once a week, write down what you’re grateful for.
31. Take action to solve the problem rather than just ruminating about it.
32. Stop ruminating.
33. Savor the good stuff. The next time you see a beautiful sunset, stop and really see it.
34. Don’t resist.
35. Drop your struggle against change. We want to feel like we’re flexible and open and yet, when change arrives, we resist it as though it were the devil.
37. Embrace your shadow. We all have a dark side – don’t run from yours.
39. Express yourself. Don’t try to stuff your negative thoughts.
40. Focus on the positive rather than predict the negative.
42. Distract yourself from your troubles for awhile. Healthy stuff only!
44. Remember that this is how it feels today. It won’t be like this all the time.
46. Remember that Suffering = Pain x Resistance.
47. Adopt a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. See failures as opportunities to learn rather than unmanageable setbacks.
48. Believe that life is meaningful. “Those who have a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any ‘how.’” Frederich Nietzsche.
49. Don’t take things personally. That’s what pessimists do. You’re trying to be an optimist, remember?
50. Increase your creativity to be able to improvise solutions better. Read A Whack on the Side of the Head.
51. Be willing to grow.
52. Let it go.
53. Stay away from shame. Watch Dr. Brene Brown’s Tedx talk.
54. Change what you can, accept what you can’t.
Which of these works best for you? Or do you have other ideas that I may have missed?
If you enjoyed this post, please ‘like’ it on Facebook and/or give it a Tweet! Thanks!
And don’t forget to subscribe to Bounce by filling out the short form above on the right. You’ll also get my FREE ebook Bounce Back! 5 keys to survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs.
Posted on | January 8, 2013 | 32 Comments
Pain is a relatively objective, physical phenomenon; suffering is our psychological resistance to what happens. Events may create physical pain, but they do not in themselves create suffering. Resistance creates suffering. Stress happens when your mind resists what is… The only problem in your life is your mind’s resistance to life as it unfolds. ~ Dan Millman
I think suffering might be unnecessary.
I think pain, both physical and emotional, is a natural, unavoidable aspect of being human, but suffering is something we bring on ourselves.
And I wonder what you think.
Let’s look under the hood of pain and suffering and see what we find.
The difference between pain and suffering
You might be reading this post because something has gone wrong in your life and it is causing you discomfort, distress, or even trauma.
Perhaps emotionally, perhaps physically, or maybe even both, but it hurts.
And we don’t like to be hurt.
It’s hard-wired into our brains to move away from pain rather than toward it.
When we were children and accidentally touched the hot stove, we quickly formulated a rule: I must do everything I can to stay away from hot stoves.
It’s the same with emotional pain. We have a knee-jerk reaction to the hot stove of our negative feelings which is to move away from them as quickly as possible.
We just do not like to feel bad.
However, in this moving away we sometimes set up a condition for ourselves called suffering.
Let’s look at the difference between pain and suffering.
Pain is a natural condition whether it is emotional or physical. We touch the hot stove or go through the breakup of a relationship and it hurts.
Pain is a cue that something is wrong in the body and/or the mind.
We need pain in order to function well in the world.
Suffering is a choice
Suffering is more of a choice than pain.
Suffering is what happens when we have an expectation about how things should turn out or when we put a judgment value on pain.
You’ve probably heard a phrase similar to “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” That’s because, while pain is a natural part of our lives, suffering is something we create around the idea of pain.
American meditation instructor Shinzen Young has developed a formula for suffering:
Suffering = Pain x Resistance
With this simple equation, you can see that resistance to pain only multiplies our suffering. If we give pain a value of 1 and resistance a value of 2, we experience suffering as a value of 2.
But if we resist so much that the value of resistance becomes 10, now our suffering increases to 10 as well.
It makes sense: the more we resist, the more suffering we will experience.
But what if we don’t resist at all? What if our resistance value is equal to zero?
Then our suffering will be zero as well.
The pain is still there, but the added suffering is gone.
We are used to resisting. It’s a normal human reaction to the inevitability of pain. But it also increases our suffering.
So what to do?
The first thing that must happen is to become aware that you are resisting.
It’s likely that you are not aware of it nor has anyone pointed it out to you.
Look for clues that you are resisting such as feelings of frustration, resentment, restlessness, and anger.
Note your inner thoughts. You are probably resisting if you find yourself thinking, “I can’t stand this. I hate this. I want this to stop.”
Now figure out a way to go with the painful situation rather than working against it.
When my late partner was in treatment for breast cancer, she let go of being angry at the effects of the chemotherapy.
She never grew to like chemotherapy – liking the pain isn’t required here – but she dropped the negative feelings that went along with it.
And I let go of my anxiety about not being able to ‘fix it’ for her.
The experience was still painful for us – physically for her and emotionally for me – but neither of us felt that we were suffering all of the time. We tried very hard not to add on any negative emotional tones to the pain that came with the experience.
Think of your painful situation as a river you are trying to get across. The current is swift, but not so swift that you can’t wade across to the other side.
Now, one way to reach the other side is to go straight across. This requires you to keep your balance and fight against the flow of the river each time you take a step.
But an approach that works better is to walk diagonally down river toward the far shore. In this way, you are wading with the current.
The flow of the water propels each step forward as you make your way across. You will end up further down the river than you had initially intended, but you will still have made it across.
And with much less effort and struggle than if you had stubbornly chosen the most direct path.
I’m really interested in hearing from you on this subject.
Am I being too simplistic?
What about people in under-developed nations who don’t have enough food, water, clothing, and shelter? We often say they are suffering. Is their experience of suffering necessary or unnecessary?
What about people with chronic pain or terminal illness?
I still hold that in each of these instances, suffering is unnecessary.
What do you say?
Posted on | December 14, 2012 | 30 Comments
I broke into tears when I told my partner that new information indicated that many of the children killed today at a school in Newtown, Connecticut were kindergartners. Five years old.
Friends on Facebook posted about their shock and grief and prayers sent to the families affected by the horror.
President Obama had to pause for twelve full seconds during his short address to the nation, right after he said, “The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old.” Looking down, he brushed tears from his eyes.
My tears had just dried only to start again when I went to research something for this post and saw that Google had placed a tiny, somber candle underneath their search bar. Hovering my cursor over the candle, I read the words that faded into view: “Our hearts are with the families and community of Newtown, Connecticut.”
So say we all.
Grief, meaning, and the questions before us
It seems to me that there are three pressing questions that we now face:
How do we manage our grief?
How do we get perspective on this?
How do we make sure this never happens again?
Much has been said today about the parents who rushed to the school to desperately look for their children.
In near-panic, they burst into the secured firehouse and scoured the faces in front of them, hoping to find their child.
Most of them, thankfully, did.
Twenty sets of parents did not.
Our hearts break for them.
But it is not only these parents who face the ravages of grief and shock.
Death has touched so many more. The brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins. The playmates and friends.
The kindly crossing guard who knew each of her charges. The cashier at the supermarket who knew that father and his son. The former students who lost a beloved principal and, possibly, favorite teachers.
The grief spreads from person to person like water finding its way across a cracked and dry desert. First in rivulets but then, as those rivulets merge together, the water becomes a stream and then a river. The grief of the parents becomes the grief of Newtown becomes the grief of a nation.
Just last week I wrote a post on the absolute and utter pain of grief and how, sometimes, you just have to go through it even if it means being knocked to your hands and knees.
And I hate it – I hate it – that so many people are on their hands and knees now.
But, as Shauna Shapiro said, “We accept our experience not because we want it, but because it is already here.”
This experience, this tragedy is here. Let grief run its healing course.
If you are surprised by the intensity of your grief right now, realize that your reaction is completely normal. How can you not grieve the senseless loss of so many young children? How can you not think, “There, but for fortune, go I?”
Death is a part of our common humanity as is the grief that accompanies it. You are sharing in our collective sorrow.
Do what you need to do to process your feelings. Perhaps it helps to talk about Newtown with a friend. We’re having a discussion on Facebook – join us there. Maybe it helps to write in a journal about how this tragedy reminds you of your own losses.
Perhaps you could create a small ritual to honor your own grief and those of your brothers and sisters in Connecticut. Light a candle. Write “Newtown, Connecticut” on a slip of paper and put it in your Bible or hold it against your heart or tuck it under your pillow.
If you are feeling vicariously traumatized by the events in Newtown, make sure you take care of yourself. Create a space where you feel safe both physically and emotionally. Talk to trusted loved ones about your feelings.
And breathe, remember to breathe.
As you breathe in, allow the place in your body that is feeling anxious to soften. As you breathe out, let go of any judgments you are having about yourself.
This is an excellent time to practice self-compassion. You may want to take advantage of Kristin Neff’s wonderful guided meditations on her website, especially “Soften, soothe, allow.”
Acknowledge your feelings – all of them. And that includes anger.
A friend of mine emailed me and strongly encouraged me to write this post, to step up and do what I can to help.
I sent her back an expletive-laced email that exploded with anger. Not at her, but at the gunman and the situation.
I felt better afterwards.
Anger is an extremely common aspect of grief and a very normal reaction under circumstances like these.
Acknowledge it, honor it, but don’t let it overwhelm you.
We’ll talk later about productive ways to use your anger.
Perspective and meaning
Resiliency research has shown that being able to provide meaning to adversity is an essential part of being able to bounce back.
This usually involves finding a positive aspect, some silver lining to a crisis. Maybe a new opportunity arises in one area of your life when a bad thing happens in another. Or maybe the crisis begins to make sense later when you get a bigger picture of the time frame in which it occurred.
It’s going to be hard to find a silver lining here.
How do we make any sense at all of a senseless act?
Maybe we don’t right now.
Remember that meaning-making and perspective take awhile. It’s part of our human tendency to chew on things for a bit before we figure them out.
As Amy wrote on my Facebook page tonight, “I want to be in touch with my sadness and be aware of my feelings around the tragedy. I’m not ready to move on. I want to feel connected to this event as I try to make sense of what the Universe intended.”
It’s okay to not be able to figure this out yet. It’s hard because we so want to understand, we want for it to make sense. Our brains are struggling with this contradictory data that they’ve encountered.
For now, try to soften around this urge for meaning. Like Amy, allow yourself to feel connected to your feelings and the event itself, but let the meaning-making happen naturally.
I think, though, that there is one thing we need to solidify rather than soften.
The time is now
The time is now.
We must not – cannot – turn away from this again.
An article in Mother Jones, accurately and sarcastically called “A Guide to Mass Shootings in America,” lists 61 – now 62 – mass murders by gunfire since 1982.
Our resiliency individually and as a nation relies on working together to solve problems.
We can blame things on Congress, or the President, or oil companies, but it boils down to what we do. What I do. What you do.
We must not let opinions about guns and gun control divide us.
As President Obama said, “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
This is the time we must unite despite our differences. We must find an answer to the terrorism of gun violence.
This is the time for compassion, empathy, and action.
If you don’t agree with your neighbor on the solution to gun violence, remember that he deserves as much compassion as you do because of your very humanity. Put yourself in his shoes and understand that he is taking responsibility for his beliefs as you are for yours.
Practice mindfulness by staying with the current issue and adopting a non-judgmental stance with people who don’t agree with you. You can disagree and still be loving and kind.
And be practical. Allow your anger to energize you to action, but don’t post vitriol on Facebook. Post ideas and solutions.
All of us, no matter our opinions on guns in America, must act now before there is more bloodshed, more grief, more trauma.
Write your Congressperson and tell her you expect action to be taken on a federal level to address this issue. Call your Senator and tell him the same thing.
Have a conversation with your friends and brainstorm how you can affect the process.
We have to figure this out. It has to stop here.
Do it for yourself.
Do it for our country.
Do it for the children.
It’s important that we talk about this. Let me know what you’re thinking and feeling in the comments below.
For a great start in processing this, see Sarah O’Leary’s terrific post “Is There Love Even Here?”
Please do join us on Facebook to keep talking, processing, and problem-solving.
Posted on | December 6, 2012 | 49 Comments
“Pain is only romantic at a distance.” ~ Laurie Slate
I was on my hands and knees on the floor, and I wasn’t sure how I got there.
It was three o’clock in the morning, and I stumbled out of bed to use the bathroom. But on the way back, it hit me again as though for the first time: Ruth was dead.
She died a few weeks ago, and she wasn’t coming back. Ever.
The rawness of reality hit me hard in the stomach. I doubled over as a long wail rose from my gut and came out of my mouth as though it had a life of its own—as though it was possessed by some mad demon of grief.
I found myself on the floor, keening and sobbing.
“Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!” I gasped. The awful truth—the person I loved most in the world was gone forever—had broken through the thin protection from awareness that sleep provided.
Grief had cold-cocked me right in the heart.
The rest of the story
In most self-improvement blogs, including mine, this would be the point in the story where I would say, “But then _______ (fill in the blank) happened,” and everything was better.
I would give you several bullet points so that you, too, can feel better than ever right away! Act now!
But that’s not what happened.
The rest of the story is that I cried so hard on my hand and knees, I thought I was going to vomit.
I cried and wailed to Ruth about how much I missed her.
I thought the pain would never end. And it didn’t.
Finally, exhausted and my tears spent, I was able to crawl into bed and go back to sleep.
The truth about pain
It wasn’t pretty.
It wasn’t easy.
There wasn’t any checklist of bullet points for me to follow that made it better.
The next day, I recounted the episode to my friend, Laurie, who is one of those people who can spiritually attune to other people’s wavelengths.
“It’s not like the movies, Laurie,” I said. “They make it seem so romantic when someone is grieving.”
Laurie looked at me lovingly and replied softly, “Pain is only romantic at a distance.”
No truer thing was ever said.
I was watching The Amazing Spiderman the other night and chuckled a bit when Spiderman, resting after an epic fight with The Lizard, looks down at his gashed torso and says, “That completely sucked!”
That’s how it is with pain.
I made it through my horrible wailing night, but it wasn’t the last such episode that I would experience. Intense grief was a long-term companion for me, and I was wracked with painful spasms for a few years before my grief finally ebbed away to a manageable distance.
It completely sucked.
On the nature of pain
I’m very close to my older sister, Susie. She’s been telling me about the pain she’s having in her joints.
It moves around, this pain. Sometimes it’s in her feet, sometimes in her shoulders, and right now it’s in her fingers. They’re swollen, inflamed, and so sore that it’s hard for her to unscrew the cap off a water bottle, let alone do her job as an electrician.
She finally got in to see a specialist. She’s been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis: an ongoing painful disorder.
I hate this and want to fix it.
The other day, as I rode my bike, I was pondering the nature of pain.
I was riding up a hill and challenging myself by peddling in a higher gear than normal. My breath was coming in gasps, my heart was thudding out of my chest, and my thighs ached.
I wanted it to hurt, because I wanted to understand more about pain. Maybe if I understood about my own pain, I could help Susie with hers.
But then I realized that I was tolerating the pain in my body and continuing to push myself because I knew my pain was going to end as soon as I got to the top of the hill and got my breath back.
I called Susie later that day and told her about my realization that my tolerance of pain was based on the idea that it was going to stop. But what about her pain that may or may not end?
“I think ongoing pain is similar to when elite athletes train for an endurance sport—like a triathlon,” she said. “It depends on how much suffering you’re willing to put up with that day. Some days you can run a marathon and other days you can only tolerate five miles.
“But you keep training anyway.”
Why there are no bullet points
By this point, you might be wondering when I’m going to get to the good stuff. When am I going to give you the magic bullet points that will make life’s painful episodes better?
And here’s why: I receive emails from readers who tell me about their pain and their extremely difficult circumstances that break my heart to hear about.
Bullet points aren’t going to help.
Okay, maybe they will help a little.
But what I want you to know, what we all need to know and understand, is that sometimes life cold-cocks you in the heart.
And it hurts. It just fucking hurts.
And you make your way through it however you make your way through it.
Maybe it’s by sobbing on your hands and knees until you can’t sob anymore.
Maybe it’s by calling your friend at three o’clock in the morning.
Maybe it’s by tolerating as much as you can each day.
Maybe it’s by shouting and raging at God.
Somehow, miraculously, while you’re doing these things, time passes.
And one day, you look back with wonder and say, “I made it.”
I’m interested in what you think. Please leave a comment below.
Posted on | November 3, 2012 | 36 Comments
I had too much to do.
And it was all spread out on my desk. I was looking at it and it was looking back at me shouting, “You need to do something with us! We’ve been sitting here for days!”
So I did what I usually do when overwhelm sets in.
I couldn’t decide what to do first, what was most important, what order I should do things in so I sat there, incapacitated.
And this was not the first time this scenario had played itself out. I am a chronic avoider so I unfortunately find myself sitting at a desk with various notes stuck here and there, each with a reminder to complete some task.
You’d think I’d learn.
And, for some reason, this time I did.
I don’t know if it was echoes of reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done many years ago, reading some kick-ass productivity blogs lately, or remembering the motto of my last boss: “Never let anything pass over your desk more than once,” but somehow it came to me.
Just do the thing in front of you.
A cautious trickle of relief started to thaw my frozen state.
Could it be that simple?
I picked up the note that was closest to me. My usual inner protests kicked in.
“It’s not most efficient to do this one first! You should prioritize!”
I did it anyway.
It felt great! I had accomplished a task, even if it was out of order.
I threw the first note away and picked up the next one that was in front of me.
I finished that task, too.
You know the rest of the story.
After awhile, my desk was clear save for a few notes with tasks that could only be completed at a future date.
Making it through by doing what’s in front of you
Just do the thing in front of you.
Now that my desk was clear, I had some time to ponder this simple idea a little more.
I had recently sent out an email to followers of Bounce and asked them how I could best help them. What did they struggle with most?
I received a glut of responses that had the same theme: I’ve got too much on my plate! What do I do?
From Laurie who found that her well-ordered daily to-do list soon was in shambles due to the crises that arose during the day to Lynda who was in danger of losing her housing, was in debt, and had recently decided to leave her husband.
From Cathie who, facing retirement, has suddenly found that she doesn’t know who she is without work as her identity to Leslie who has lost several loved ones to death recently and then faced an IRS audit on top of it all.
I could hear the same question coming from all of these people.
What do I do first? How can I bounce back from this?
So I wondered – is doing the thing in front of you the answer in these situations as well?
I think it is.
I’ll give you a personal example to explain.
Perhaps I knew about this principle a long time ago, but just didn’t recognize it then.
You see, I lost my partner to breast cancer in 2004. I had never lost anyone close to me and we were extremely close.
Even though I knew she would die of cancer, I was in no way prepared for the grief that followed.
It was excruciating.
I sometimes found myself on hands and knees on the floor, sobbing, wondering how I got there only to remember that a powerful gust of grief had just buckled my knees and caused me to collapse.
I didn’t know when the pain was going to stop and I couldn’t imagine getting through days like this let alone weeks and months.
And then, blessedly, the thought came to me, “Just get through the next hour.” Then, quickly, “No, just get through the next five minutes.”
And I did get through those five minutes. And the five minutes after that. And the next five, too.
Did it take my grief away? No.
Did it make me feel better? No.
But I made it.
In my next post, I’m going to talk more about that time, but for now the important lesson is that I just did what was in front of me. I took the next five minutes and got through them.
So when I look at the crises facing Laurie and Lynda and Cathie and Leslie, I see that, while this isn’t going to make the sky open up and a chorus of angels sing, just doing what is in front of you will get them through their circumstances as well.
How to do what is in front of you
This idea is actually a very active version of mindfulness.
It requires you to notice what is in front of you, have no judgment about it, and just do it in the present moment without thinking about the past or future.
Maybe we can break it down a bit further.
1. Look at what is in front of you.
Maybe it is a tangle of material things like the notes on my desk.
Or maybe you’re looking at a series of life changes that caught you off-guard and completely surprised.
2. Pick the thing closest to you.
If it’s a to-do list, choose the first item.
If you’re staring at a closet that needs to be re-organized, grab the thing nearest to you.
If you’re trying to decide whether to leave your husband or stay with him, choose that to work on.
3. Do something with it.
Complete the task on the to-do list, even if it’s more efficient to do three other things first. I don’t care. Do the thing in front of you.
When you grab the thing out of the disorganized closet, do something with it. Don’t just set it down, make a decision: keep, throw away, or donate.
When you choose to make a decision about your relationship, do something about it. Go see a therapist. Talk to your spouse. Write in your journal to organize your thoughts.
4. Rinse. Repeat.
As you accomplish tasks or start making your way through a life crisis, keep this process going.
You’ll still get overwhelmed sometimes.
You’ll find yourself on your hands and knees now and again.
Just take a breath and do the thing in front of you.
What’s in front of you right now? Let me know in the comments below.