It was the perfect September evening – the air was cool and crisp – a blessed respite from the oppressive Kansas summer. I was finishing up my evening walk. Normally my friend Dina was with me, but tonight I was alone. As I gazed up at the stars dotting the black sky, a feeling of dread washed over me.
I felt vulnerable. Exposed.
Someone could fly over right now and shoot at me.
Irrational? Normally, yes. But not this night. This night was September 13, 2001. Barely 48 hours since our world was invaded and changed forever. Normal things like taking walks and getting gas and dropping my kids off at school were now laced with fear and anxiety. Even walking in my ridiculously safe neighborhood left me with a profound sense of uneasiness.
Since that time, I–and all of us–have had to regain our bearings and do normal things without feeling fear. We have had to figure out how to keep moving while accepting the reality that everything can change in an instant.
The anniversary of that awful day—combined with the images of devastating earthquakes and hurricanes and fires that are currently invading our physical and emotional space—has got me thinking a lot about how to find a balance in this reality.
As a therapist, I hear story after story of people trying to manage their own disasters. The mother whose daughter committed suicide; the wife who refuses to bail her husband out of jail because that’s where he belongs; the man who madly loves a woman who abuses alcohol (and him) and can’t decide if life would be better with or without her. The teenager who probably isn’t going to get asked to prom and wouldn’t be able to afford a dress if she was.
Our stories are different, but in one way or another, we all have to face the reality that life just isn’t turning out the way we thought it would. And when the world literally crashes down around us – when the marriage fails, the storm batters, the fire threatens or the earthquake divides – how do we even begin to do normal things like buy bread at the grocery store or brush our teeth or take the dog for a walk?
When we lose anything—a person, a dream, our minds—we can’t help but think how absurd it is that people are still trimming their toenails, stoplights are still changing and banks are still keeping normal business hours.
Whether we like it, understand it or want it to be, the ordinary and the tragic will always end up occupying the same space.
It seems a little much to wrap our tiny brains around.
I’ve found that thinking dialectically can help.
A dialectic refers to the “synthesis of opposites.” It allows us to find truth in two seemingly opposed ideas: I don’t want to go to work, but I need money. My kid drives me crazy but I would give my life for him.
Completely opposite ideas that are true at the same time.
To think dialectically, we have to learn to be “both/and” instead of “either/or.” When we face tragedy, we have to open up our hands and hold the grief and joy side by side. It’s a messy business, but it can be done.
And really, it must be done. I have had one-time appointments with people who couldn’t do it. I have met with them and heard their stories, but then they leave.
“You can’t help me,” one beautiful grieving mother told me as she walked out my office door, “you can’t bring my son back.”
Broke my heart, because I knew she was right on both counts.
People do though – they find ways to grieve and go on at the very same time. The woman who started Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. The man who dedicated his life to finding missing children after losing one of his; millions of others who, in the face of unspeakable tragedy, wake up each morning and keep doing ordinary and extraordinary things. These courageous souls decide not to let their pain define them, and instead to allow it to do something good.
So just how do we go about living both/and in an either/or world? Here are some ideas:
Learn to practice radical acceptance—This came from Marsha Linehan, the woman who developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Radical acceptance says, “It is what it is. I didn’t choose it, I don’t want it, I didn’t ask for it, but it’s on my plate, so what am I going to do with it?” Joni Eareckson Tada is an accomplished author, speaker and artist. She became a quadriplegic at age 18 when she miscalculated the depth of the lake she was diving into. She draws amazing works of art–with her mouth. This is a woman who has mastered the art of radical acceptance.
Find something to live for that is bigger than yourself – many people find this in spirituality. Like Job, they cry, they scream, and they rage at God, and then, when they are exhausted, they sit quietly and listen. They gain perspective and decide that to build a life worth living, they must find something worth living for.
Invite gratitude to be a part of your life – I know from experience that gratitude is transformational. When I get crabby about being stuck in traffic, I can be grateful for a car to drive and a job to go to. When I get irritable about having to park on the 6th floor of the parking garage, I can be grateful that my legs and lungs work well enough to get me up the stairs. Gratitude takes the edge off my irritability and allows me to see the good in the difficult.
Stop being invested in outcomes – This is a hard one, because we are an outcome-oriented people. But letting go of responsibility for the outcome and living well in the process can slow us down, clear our thinking, and help us figure out what’s most important. Your kid may not go to med school. Your boss may not give you the promotion. Not getting what we want can be enormously disappointing, but it can also lead us down paths we never would have ventured onto otherwise.
Get busy creating a life that reflects your priorities – There’s nothing like a good natural disaster to get our attention. Crisis has a way of stripping life down to its most basic priorities. I’ve noticed that when people start to get healthier, they naturally start working on creating a life that is more reflective of their priorities. I once worked with a woman whose husband walked away from a lucrative career in the oil business to go to floral school. Simplify your life, get out of debt, find a job you love, invest your life in people instead of things.
Lean in to the pain – Ugh – one of those overused-but-true clichés. When pain or anxiety or grief or despair overwhelm you, instead of running from it, lean into it. What can you learn about yourself and others? Where are you vulnerable? What do you need? What are you settling for? What are you doing to numb or ignore the pain that is trying to get your attention?
The same sun that melts the wax can harden clay
And the same rain that drowns the rat will grow the hay
And the mighty wind that knocks us down
If we lean into it
Will drive our fears away.