No one is exempt from pain or fear or sadness.
It’s part of the terrain. It’s part of life.
Just remember, the terrain isn’t always rocky.
Confession time. I have always looked for the perfect answer. I’ve always wanted there to be something I could do or something I could find or some way I could be that would make me completely impervious to all of life’s stresses. I have always wanted to remain utterly calm in the face of uncertainty, have perfect faith in the face of fear, be completely unflappable in the face of anxiety. I imagined that I could be so completely put together that nothing could shake me. All things stressful and unwanted would roll off my unruffled-self like water off a duck’s back. I would greet life with enlightenment, serenity, and a super-hero cape. I would be totally zen.
Yes. I know. It sounds ridiculously unrealistic. And it was. And I was reminded time and time again that totally zen was not really, well, real. But apparently I needed to go for it anyway. Because I did. And apparently it was what I needed to do in order to finally learn that there is no way to outrun life. There is no way to be exempt from pain or fear or sadness. It’s part of the terrain. It’s part of life. And it’s not in my power to change that fact– even with a super-hero cape. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to where I try to outrun life.
In my life, I have spent countless days, weeks, years looking for that perfect something that would create this highly-coveted state– this state of unflappability. This mindset, the there-has-to-be-something-that-will-magically-fix-it mindset, was my driving force. I would get obsessed with finding the perfect whatever-it-was that would fix everything, hoping it would make me feel fabulous and take away the aching need to just feel better.
While trying to lose weight was always my go-to strategy, it was not the only thing I tried. I hoped the perfect relationship would do it. I hoped religion would do it. I hoped the perfect haircut would do it. The perfect wardrobe, the perfect use of my time, the perfect job, being the best at, well, you name it, anything I tried, would do it. I thought if could just figure out the right formula, my perfect, happy self would emerge and ride off into the sunset for my happily ever after.
Here’s an embarrassing, but honest, example of this. I remember spending probably 2 weeks trying to find the perfect nail polish. I was obsessed. Was there some secret top coat that would make my manicure last for two weeks? Should I try gel or shellac? Should I invest in the cheaper stuff or the more expensive? Should I do it myself or go to a salon? I googled. I read reviews. I compared prices. I finally decided on the perfect answer. After all that, it turned out I’m allergic to gel nails.
I get that this sounds like an incredibly shallow use of my time. And it was. Incredibly shallow. And I knew at the time that it was absurd and that nail polish was not what I really wanted, but I also knew what was driving it. While it may have been shallow and absurd, it was an excellent distraction. It gave me something outside of myself to focus on when I felt so powerless to fix what was going on inside.
And that was the real problem. I was trying to fix how I felt inside by messing with the outside. I think of these outside “fixes” in two ways. These outside fixes either act as a band-aid or a distraction. Band-aids are the things we use to try and fix the problem that only serve to cover it up. Distractions are how we try to avoid the problem. Band-aids are things like finding the perfect relationship, getting the fabulous degree, trying to get the perfect body, focusing on fixing people around you, trying to be the best at, well, you name it, anything you try. Distractions are things like shopping, work all the time, drugs and alcohol, dieting, to muchTV, obsessing over nail polish. You get the idea…
The problem with these types of fixes is that they don’t fix anything! They only address symptoms, not core issues. We get these symptoms (or signals) that something is wrong and we shift into fix-it mode, otherwise known as Symptom Management. But this does not heal the the real problem. It’s basically like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. If you find a big enough band-aid, you might cover the gaping hole, but you won’t heal the wound. You’re going to bleed out.
Let’s look at it another way. We tend to recognize we are sick, or that something is wrong, when our bodies start to not work the way they we expect. Let’s take the common cold as an example. How do you know you’ve got a cold? You recognize the symptoms: stuffy nose, sore throat, coughing, fatigue. So when we get a cold, we do things to ameliorate the symptoms. We take medicine to deal with congestion and with the pain of the sore throat. We gargle with salt water, take cough syrup, and drink lots of fluids. We’ve all had colds, so you know the drill.
However, none of this Symptom Management addresses the root cause of the cold. The cause of the cold is a nasty little virus reeking havoc on your system– a virus that can’t be cured out of existence and that has to run it’s course. You can ease the discomfort of the symptoms, but your body has to have time to do it’s job and fight off the virus in order for you to be well. It needs time and attention to heal.
Just like our bodies, our emotional selves– our soul, our spirit, or however you like to think of it– let us know something is off kilter by giving us cues, or symptoms, if you will. There are a variety of symptoms for what ails the soul. Soul-symptoms tend to be things like feelings of anxiety, unhappiness, anger, numbness, lethargy, worry, or fear. These can be warning-signs that things are not going as they need to on the inside. But these feelings are so freaking uncomfortable, and they point to a path so littered with emotional baggage, that they can feel impossible to deal with. So we be-hive it straight to the medicine cabinet for a band-aid or we high-tail it to the mall for a shopping trip of distraction.
But somewhere in us we know (or eventually recognize) that this is the stuff we can’t outrun. No amount of nail polish or drugs or accomplishments can heal the wounds. We have to stay and face what we are running from. We have to figure out what it actually is that we are afraid of and we have to be brave. Somehow, we have to do this. Or we get to keep running.
And here’s what I figured out about myself when I decided to stay instead of run: I didn’t feel so great about myself. Actually, I didn’t think I was pretty enough, thin enough, smart enough, lovable enough, anything enough. I just didn’t feel like I was worth-while. I felt like I had to earn and prove my worth and that somehow all of these things I did to make the external appear valuable would make the interior valuable, as well. And after I learned all this, I’ll be honest, I did some more running.
But, fortunately, I didn’t continue to spend all my time trying to find the perfect pair of shoes or the all-powerful, life-changing haircut (well, not as much time). I also did useful things– healing things. I did the things that could actually help me get to the inside and to stop the exhausting sprint away from myself. I went to therapy. I dedicated myself to discovering my spirituality. I meditated. I worked on letting go of control I didn’t actually have. I read helpful books. I journaled. I listened to inspiring podcast or lectures. And I stopped dieting. I ripped off my all-time favorite band-aid. And I finally learned that worth is inherent and that I was enough and that I didn’t have to be perfect to be good.
When I finally began to feel my feelings (they were freaking uncomfortable) and when I started to walk and heal my personal path (it seemed overwhelming and impossible), I finally began to heal. I also began to see that seeking perfect peace, perfect faith, perfect anything is also just another band-aid. Another way to distract myself from the fact that life is messy. Another way to try to control the mess. Another way to keep running. So much for totally zen.
So here’s the take-away: there is no perfect cure-all answer that will inoculate us from life. The only answer is to live it as it comes up. That means that sometimes I will greet life with enlightenment, serenity, and a super-hero cape. And sometimes I won’t. And that’s ok. It’s the terrain. It’s life.