I like to loft what I think is witty criticism on current events with what I believe to be the cadence of Trevor Noah or Jon Stewart, but likely lands more like a bullet train of intensity plowing through a herd of cattle caught unaware while they were grazing.
It’s how I protect myself from feeling vulnerable. I distract myself from the soft parts that I’m afraid will get hurt by hurling barbs at systemic injustices, incompetent leaders, and the million bungling missteps before this moment that led us here, to now.
While those things may stand to pass muster, really, my anger and frustration is a coping mechanism itself for my fear.
Today, we’re about two weeks in to our limited work and social lives, and like millions in the U.S., we’re on stay-at-home orders. In my newly found time where I used to be working, I find I have more time to write. Don't get me wrong, we also have two young kids, are homeschooling (but we already did that anyway), and yes, my husband is an acute care nurse at a local hospital.
So how are we handling this? After my searing indictments of leaders has landed with a thud in a family text thread, what are we really doing?
It's easier said than done.
Because in truth, coping mechanisms or not, we are all vulnerable, and none of us want to be vulnerable.
Coronoavirus has done nothing but elucidate this fact profoundly. The primal fear of survival is real for many of us. And our coping mechanisms are simultaneously loudly on display.
Some are like me, and climb up onto pedestals to shout, only to know that they are hollering into the abyss.
Others retreat into previously formed behaviors formed by stress and trauma, with feelings of deep guilt, shame, not-enoughness, or deprivation climbing back into the front seat after being relegated to the recesses of the proverbial shed behind old dust covered power tools and broken down sporting equipment.
And still others ignore the real potentials of threat with clichéd reckless abandon, continuing to pursue their lives as normally as possible, out in the world as if it didn’t matter, to you, to me, to them.
And some of us might be doing all of these things, to some extent.
These are our coping mechanisms against fear.
But they don’t have to be.
I offer this to you, brave ones, dear ones, who are home right now, braving this storm. Who are working in hospitals and clinics, and on ambulances and firetrucks with GOD I hope enough PPE, and who are working at gorcery stores, gas stations, and picking up the trash and taking it where it needs to go. I offer this to you.
I offer this as the chance to go within, in this moment, and look at fear and say to it, “I love you.”
This is ultimately the one thing that can shrink fear to the size it truly is: a small, insecure, and terrified focal point. It is this, and it’s focusing power is tremendous - it has the capacity to magnify to gargantuan proportions what we give to it.
But when we tell our fear “I love you” it stalls for a moment.
It becomes surprised. In the confusion, it shrinks.
“You’re not afraid of me?” fear asks.
“No. Why should I be?” I respond. “You love me so much you’re willing to protect me at all costs."
"You love me so much you’re willing to make me do anything to make me feel in control and safe, even if those things that I do are actually counter-productive. You don’t even know they’re counter-productive, you’re just doing what you do best. You protect me. Thank you.”
“Wow,” fear replies. “But what now? I still need to protect you. We need to focus on everything, right now, that could go wrong, I need to keep you safe.”
“No,” I tell fear, gently, with nothing deep love, and appreciation.
“No my dear. Right now, I want to hold you close and remind you that I am no longer a small child in need of my super-hero parents, or you, to save me. I know what I need to do to stay safe right now, what is within my power, and what is actually draining me of my energy."
"Focusing on everything that could go wrong? That makes me less safe because it increases my stress, and that decreases my energy and my immunity.”
“But what are you going to do?” fear asks, cautiously, ready to leap from my arms and into the driver’s seat.
“I’m going to call up these friends of mine, and bear with me, because you’ll roll your eyes at them.” I say.
“Who are they? Who can possibly protect you better than I can?” fear demands.
“My Breath, and the Present.” I say.
“That is such Buddhist / new age / hippie B.S.,” fear retorts, seeing an easy way out.
She’s already squirming her little arms for the steering wheel, ready to kick me into the backseat for the ride through all the headlines of the NYT, Instagram for an hour to see what everyone else is saying, and then WhatsApp, where she’ll coax me into ranting about some political thing no one needs to hear right now.
“No,” I say, “They aren’t, they are doorways.” I answer, determined.
“Ha! How so?” says fear, pausing, turning to look at me, curious to hear my answer before she snatches the wheel.
“When I stop and invite them to visit, you always eventually shift to the backseat. Sometimes you even get out of this imaginary car."
"Most often though, you squirm for quite a bit and show up in me as self-righteousness, indignance, and pride, but then you start to edge out. Sometimes it takes longer than others. It used to be I couldn’t get you to budge, but my Breath, and the Present, have really been kind and helped me to learn how to let them in.”
“I don’t trust them,” fear says. “I only trust me. I am intense, constant vigilance. And if not that, I trigger my buddies, all your coping mechanisms. That’s what keeps you safe.”
“Yes,” I say, “And when I do that, I wear out, run ragged. I sometimes, more rarely now, end up hurting folks I love or care about in some way through any number of actions thoughtlessly launched. I also sometimes break out in hives from the stress and pressure, also way less often these days. You know that I have some immune sensitivities and they get heightened when you are in control. That response is what really got me interested in my Breath and the Present.”
"Hmph. Go on," says fear, begrudgingly.
“So,” I continue, “I learned about my Breath and the Present, and somehow, they are like a life raft bringing me to shore, out of the stream of intense thoughts where your vigilance sets me adrift. Suddenly, I’m on shore, and my tunnel vision is widened. I can see around me, and can let light back in, I can rest for a moment.”
“But are you safe?” asks fear. “Really safe? I mean, that’s the ONLY thing I want for you, is deep, real, safeness.”
“In the when moment I’m on that imaginary shore, away from that vigilant thought stream of yours, breathing, in the present, and in my body, yes, I am safe.” I say.
"Yea, but what about... you know, the future?" fear wants to know.
“It’s true,” I continue. “I don’t know what tomorrow holds, and I do worry about people, including my family and myself. We both know that my husband is an acute care nurse at the hospital. That I have young kids. But those facts should not root fear in me. They are just facts, simply stated.”
"Well, if you're not playing out all the possible scenarios - how do you stay safe?" asks fear.
“I and we focus on what is in our control. That is actually, how you help us, we do what we can to be physically safe. We wash our hands every time we need to, and with the kids we sing while we do it. Never has my three-year old loved washing her hands more. It’s tiring, I do have a crack in one of my fingers now, but it keeps us safe."
"We keep our distance from others and we stay home as much as possible. We go to the park when there is space and when we do go, we are always well more than 6 feet from anyone else. If we can’t be, we go home.” I say. “This is what is in my control, our control, and this is what I can do to keep us safe.”
“To continue,” I add, “Michael comes home from work, and before he sees us, he bleaches his shoes and takes them off before he comes in, then he goes straight to the laundry where he disrobes and puts his scrubs in the washing machine. Then he takes a shower. Only then does he come to kiss us hello and give hugs to the kids.”
“But it’s so much,” fear interrupts. “Aren’t you worried that…”
“No,” I cut fear off. “Because we are doing the best that we can. And this is what is in our control and what we can do to keep ourselves safe.”
“We also find ways to let the light in. Because I’m not letting you drive me 24/7 through the news and social media, I’m playing games with the kids, I’m writing things like this, and I’m doing lots and lots of art. The kids are very into Mo Willems these days. We’ve also got our garden started for spring.”
“Well,” fear interjects. “What about the people who don’t have it as easy as you do? I mean, I know that’s something, but you know, other folks have lost their jobs, or maybe even their housing, or maybe they don’t even HAVE housing. You think they can just breathe and be present and they’ll be fine? You think they don’t need me?”
“If a car is going to hit them, or they are about to be attacked by an animal, then yes, fear, you will help them. You will give them the reflexes they need to instantaneously shield and protect themselves.” I say. “But in the meantime, even they can call upon their Breath, and the Present moment, to bring in an anchor of calm amidst the very intense disruptions that they are experiencing.”
“I don’t know if they’ll find answers,” I continue. “This is also bigger than all of us. But I know that if they can convince their fear, just as I’ve convinced you, to at least take a backseat while they drive with their Breath, and the Present sitting shotgun, that they will be able to start to see a glimmer of light beyond the tunnel they are in at the moment, we all need that.”
"Hmph," says fear again, continuing her disbelieving refrain.
“All that ever exists is this moment, now, now and now. For 99% of us in this now moment, all that exists is the sound of the breath, and anything in the split second of immediate now-ness.”
“The rest, dear fear, is in the mind, where you like to root most, recalling the past, or imagining the future. If you, fear, are the lens with which people look to the past and the future, they cannot settle, rest, or become centered in the present. If they allow themselves to come to rest for a moment with their Breath and the Present, they will open doorways to other lenses, like Light, Openness, Curiosity, Non-Judgment, and even Love, with which to view the past, the present, and the future. These lenses have far more options than you ever allow for.”
“Honestly,” fear says, “this still sounds like a bunch of stuff you'd hear on a yoga retreat.”
“Me, your best friend fear, I'm the one hard-wired to do the protecting around here. These other fluffy-nutters sound like they just stepped off the latest spiritual bandwagon. They don’t know how to fight, not like I do. I can keep you safe.”
“Yes,” I say to fear. “I know you can, and I love you for it.”
I continue, “you can keep me safe from physical harm when it’s on it’s way to me in the form of a rabid dog chasing me, a car coming at me out of nowhere, or a tiger chasing me down in the jungle. But you cannot keep me safe from the mental fear of recalling past events that I viewed as harmful or traumatic, or the mental fear of what might happen in the future. You can only cause me literal heartache, stress, and dis-ease, leading to disease. You cannot be in charge, and it’s why I must, so often, call upon my new friends to help me navigate the present, so that my future is not pre-clouded with your judgment.”
“So now what,” says fear.
“Now,” I say. “I hope that you do your best to keep us safe from physical harm by reminding us to wash our hands, keep away from others, and stay home. This is the best you can do.”
“You can also,” I add, “make sure you step back just a little, so Breath and the Present have a chance to stand in with everyone.
“We need them. We need them as we navigate getting PPE to the healthcare providers who need it as we care for folks who are sick, and we need it as we ask people with great responsibility to make the right choices that have the chance to impact us all, and how we live for a long time coming.”
“It is not something we can control with fear, but with Breath and being Present, to invite in Openness, Curiosity, Non-judgment, and Love to be our partners in how we view, and thus, create, the future.”
“You’re pretty long-winded,” fear says to me.
“Not as much as most of us have allowed you to be.” I respond.
Be safe all.
Tonight, after a long day, where we needed as much reminder of this as anyone else, my husband and I sat and did a loving kindness mindfulness meditation once the kids were in bed and before he went to sleep preparing for another shift at the hospital tomorrow.
I invite you to do it as well, as it is for all of us.
It is simple, and starts with the self, moves to someone non-challenging (we honored our mail carriers), then to family, then to anyone in specific who you might want to focus on, then your city, your state, then the world. It took us about five minutes to do all the rounds together, and it’s what brought me down from the more triggered place I was in earlier this evening, to calling upon the wisdom that is within me to write this, that is also within you.
Here it is, done first here, for you:
May you be at ease.
May you be content with life.
May you joyful.
May you be safe and secure.
I’ve uploaded an audio file here with the full rounds if you’d like to hear it said for you, while you sit, with your Breath and the Present.