I once heard a story about a woman who was turning left on a two lane country road when another driver came roaring up behind her, smashing into her minivan at full clip. The cars careened around the road like a derailed train before skidding to a stop. As soon as she realized she was alive, her most urgent and immediate thought went to her two children in the back. She turned to see them both crying but alive. She jumped out of her car, opened the sliding door, and pulled both children from the wreckage to the side of the road. To her great relief, though shaken and scared, they checked out okay. She sighed and slumped down in a hug with them, waiting for the police to come. It was only then that the pressing pain in her arms became clear. And she realized she had two broken wrists.
Survival is a gift we rarely appreciate. As a therapist, my job is to help people get out of survival mode, to stop just coping or getting by, and find their hearts and really live again. But all of that work matters only if we can first bless survival. Surviving a traumatic event or a crisis matters most. If we move on too fast or with too much gusto, we miss the chance to be grateful for what got us through.
You are surviving right now. We all are. You may be gutting your way through a lot of things, but I know at least you’re pushing through a pandemic. Its the giant footnote in all our lives. Its implicit in how we talk with each other, “Oh I’m making it” or “doing okay” or straight up “I’m surviving.” It may simply be the laugh or sigh of anger we vent alone. A year long pandemic is not a car crash. Or maybe the slowest one ever. Its more a slow boil than a stab wound, though its onset was sudden and its losses enduring. All the same, the stress has become our normal, chronic and not simply acute. We aren’t in shock as much as we are numb to it all now.
As my therapist told me, no one is doing well right now. That’s felt true with the clients I work with. Everyone has an extra layer of stress or grief or exhaustion between them and their heart. I had some friends ask me a few weeks ago how I’m doing. And I simply I did not know. Its been a lot harder to know this whole year. Of course we aren’t all suffering to the same degree and some have found ways to live well, even appreciate the gifts in this season. Still we are all the woman skidding along in the crumpled car, not fully feeling it all because we’re still getting through it.
So when will we feel this? And what will it feel like? First off, you’ve already felt a lot this year. Big stuff. Exhausting, maddening, gut wrenching stuff. But the end will bring a struggle of its own. You know how on a road trip the last few miles to home are the hardest to endure. Or how your body finally lets down when you get home? I think that’s where we are right now. And what will the waking up feel like?
A Leaping Heart
I think the most dominant thing we will all feel is an intense desire for life. Lots of life. Lots and lots of dreams and desires. We will want to do and experience everything. The dam of desire will bust. We will want to leap like lambs set free form the covid restrictions. Insert your own metaphor here, but I believe this is how our hearts will show up first. We will want to binge life.
As Emily Freeman wrote on Instagram, “Of all the things we lost in the last 12 months, one that has taken the longest for me to name is a sense of possibility.” I resonate with that so much. We’ve had to halt, postpone, cancel, or shelve so much desire. It’s made us all stir crazy. The human heart is not made for restriction; suppression requires its greatest effort. In the words of Gerald May, “Something that has been repressed does not really go away; it remains within us, skirting the edges of our consciousness. Every now and then it reminds us of its presence, as if to say, ‘Remember me?’” And the end will bring this awareness. Grief will come as intense desire. Sometimes the ache for something is so intense it hurts.
A Tired Body and Being
Which will bring us face to face with our health and mental well being. We will want to jump back into life as we knew it and find our rhythm again, put this in the rear view mirror. But our bodies and beings will not let us. The muscles and the finances and the relationships and the depression won’t catch up fast enough to what we want. We will tire quickly. We will not have the stamina or the capacity. We will limp for awhile and the let down will show up. It will not feel like normal life. Normal life died. We won’t be as fast at returning as we thought. And this irritation that its not happening fast enough will bring sorrow. This is when we must stop and let the grief come, when the world does not spin back up like it used to.
Blessing Your Sweat Pants
The hope of the end is in the air. Can you sense it? But we are not there yet. So in the meantime, may I propose something for you to do? I said at the outset, that we rarely bless survival. We do not often stop and thank the things that got us through. I hear it most when people confess with embarrassment or outright contempt the things that got them through childhood abuse. The bedroom or the books or the imaginary friends we retreated to. The self soothing that now is addiction. The places or the people that were never good for us but got us out anyway.
We do this because its an act of self kindness. You survived. Well done. Can you thank the things you used to survive the pandemic? What will you bless? What’s getting you through?
I found the best jogger sweat pants at the outset and they made my sore body mornings more comforting. I love my coffee and the 10 gallons of egg nog I drank in the darkest nights of Winter with its creamy soothing goodness. I am grateful for swear words that got me through many starry night walks around my block (Sorry neighbors!). I am grateful for the prayers that came after the swears. I love my men’s group that found a life still on Zoom. Mando, you were a gift to me too. My binge foods and my children. And for the passionate fights with my wife, the ones that made us humble enough to want to say we were sorry and talk even more.