Okay, everyone. Back from intermission? Finished you conversation from time in the lobby? Ready to get on with it? Good. Let’s do it.
In my late twenties, I had a dream that has stayed with me all my life. In it, I was walking along (circumstances not remembered anymore) and I came to a place where the path in front of me split. Not once, as Robert Frost describes, presenting two options, but into a network of possible paths, all venturing off in different directions.
Try as I might, I couldn’t see ahead to where any of them led. I’d just have to make a blind guess. I stood there, agonizing over an impossible choice. I was afraid to move forward, afraid to screw it up, aware that turning around on the path wasn’t an option. Finally I just sat down, right in the path and pulled out some glass beads in my pocket. I looked them over, examining the patterns and the way the light made them glow from the inside. I was utterly fascinated and deeply engaged with them. My father, happening along in the dream, looked down at me and said something like “What are you doing that for? That’s not getting you anywhere.” (Sorry, Dad, but I owe you for all the times I’ve shown up in your dreams!)
I don’t remember the rest of the dream – what happened, whether I got up and made a choice, what the heck my dad was doing there… but I do remember the next moment. I didn’t speak aloud. In my head or in the all-knowing narrative of the dream, I heard the response: Everything you do does NOT have to lead somewhere or have an agenda. Spending time with beauty is well worth doing for its own sake.
Now, for some people going along in their lives, spending time enjoying things is a given. That’s what life is all about, right? But for me, after years of prep school and a competitive university program, I’d internalized that every action should be in the pursuit of gain. Or, perhaps I should say toward a goal, as gain sounds self-serving and not all goals are that. Doing something for the pure joy of it was, well, frankly irresponsible. Also, a waste of time. Time is money. Er… time is attainment. The faster you do stuff toward your goal, the faster you get there. We’ll have none of this dilly-dallying about!
Suzie, where are you going with this? Aren’t we talking about starting over? The reboot?
Yes, yes. Stay with me here. We’ll get back around to it. I just wanted to make the point that some of us need to be reminded that doing things for the sake of experiencing beauty or joy or enjoyment is well worth doing. For its own sake and not because it’s going to get you anywhere! Okay, now back to the main subject. But keep that thought in mind: joy, beauty, enjoyment, all worth doing for their own sake and not because they’re going to make anything in particular happen.
I think the next step in the process of beginning again is extremely important, though you may not have a why for doing it. Guess what? You don’t need a reason. It doesn’t have to be toward anything. You are at an impasse. Nothing much can be done anyway (remember, you’ve no new information yet). So take up the beads in your pocket.
Spend time with your joys.
When everything is shitty, or so changed that it’s unrecognizable, or even that you’ve just the vague discomfort that all is not as it should be, the antidote is tiny moments of joy. Big ones, too, if you can get ‘em. But tiny ones are the key, I think. Small things that offer bits of beauty, insight and pleasure – they’ll get you past the slog through molasses.
Start small. And pay attention.
The morning’s cup of coffee, sipped while watching birds at the feeder. The ecstatic sparkle of sunlight across new snow. The feel of your dog’s fur under your fingers and her gentle lick across your nose. The long shadows of juniper trees in the late afternoon light. These have been some of my small moments of joy. You’ll have your own. They’ll take you out of yourself. They’ll offer grace and great happiness. Even better, moments of joy allow us to feel grateful for having endured long enough to reach them. They fill you up in a way that no amount of advice or hopeful reassurances ever could. Words are empty; experience has substance.
Identify one. Then another. Glory in them. Roll around in how good it feels to feel good.
More then. A hearty laugh in response to a friend’s comment. Sitting down to finally do that thing you’ve been wanting to do. (Not because you have to do it, but because you’ve been wanting to do it. Totally different.) The feeling that wells up on a sunny afternoon when you have a full tank of gas and an adventure in front of you. Take a moment to congratulate yourself for getting as far as feeling that good.
Seek out ways to make yourself feel good. Part of the difficulty recovering from a big shift is spending so much time mired in fatigue, despair, fear and pain. You have GOT to offset all that crappy stuff with time in pleasure and beauty, otherwise you forget what they feel like. Remind yourself. Often! “Be good to yourself” has become something of a rote response to hearing someone is having a tough time. But it really is a good idea.
A caveat here: be good to yourself and cultivate joyous experiences, but first do no harm. We are very good at soothing ourselves to the detriment of our own best interests. I was guilty of this for years in my early adulthood. I lived well beyond my means in an effort to sooth myself. The quick fix of a nice meal, flight to see friends or beautiful article of clothing felt fantastic in the moment. However, my mounting debt created an unrelenting fog of despair. It thickened with every attempt to dispel it. Feel bad? Spend! Uh oh… drowning under the weight of debt and feeling terrible. How can I make myself feel better? Spend! Lather, rinse, repeat.
And we all know the euphoria of outdrinking our circumstances, only to wake the next morning and find it right next to us in bed, along with a pounding headache and queasy stomach…
Perhaps that’s why I encourage noticing small moments of joy. They cost very little. You don’t need to buy new hiking boots, special pants and a backpack to be outdoors. Just take a walk. Or sit in your backyard and watch the sky. Or drive downtown and spend time in your favorite part of the city. Cost: $0.00. Moments of feeling good: priceless.
Do no harm is not just about monetary matters. It takes a great deal of effort – both mental and physical – to gear up for a trip, take on a new activity or bring new people into your life. Do you really have the energy to spare? Or are you just draining what little you have in an effort to shake things up?
First, do no harm.
Then, enrich your days.
Spend time with your joys.
Joy is worthwhile for its own sake. Beauty is wasted unless we appreciate it, don’t you think? I’m a firm believer that if a tree falls in the forest but no one is there to observe, it does make a sound. However, why would it matter to me if I’m off doing something else? Beauty and joy are happening all around us, all the time. But if we’re not noticing, they may as well not be present. Notice them, engage with them, and you are immeasurably richer.
Okay, now that I’ve said all that, I’m going to let you in on another little secret. Spending time with your joys does lead to something. No, no, no! Don’t let that sentence undo all the ground we’ve just gained!!! Spend time with your joys for their own sake! That’s an important part of this starting over process. I’m just offering up a bit of foreshadowing. Remember that term from high school or college English Literature classes? The author gives you a heads up that something important is just ahead in the plot line.
And so it is.
To be continued….