Grief, Movement, and Picking a Skill
In terms of getting by in my day to day life thus far, the most important lesson I learned from the religious world has been to look for the meaning in things. Call it ‘God’, or purpose, or beauty, or fun, or whatever, but existence in this cold dark universe is easier when you consciously make note of the things that make your life seem more meaningful, and do your best to pursue them.
The most important lesson I’ve learned from psych nursing is that you can’t fully control your circumstances or emotional responses, but you can control the choices you make to deal with them. On the unit at Seattle Children’s, when someone was complaining about their situation, the standard response was to tell them to “pick a skill”, because the most helpful thing we knew as staff was that being proactive about your circumstances and negative emotions is more effective than responding as if there is nothing that can be done. It’s a subtle shift, but the commitment to doing something positive is the key to being able to cope with life, no matter how well-adjusted you are by nature.
Grief is a terrible friend who makes it really difficult to apply either of those lessons. It reminds you multiple times a day that the things you do – even if they’re enjoyable - are ultimately meaningless, because eventually we’re all going to die. And Grief persistently tries to dissuade you from making choices that will help you feel better, because those choices aren’t as immediately or reliably helpful as under normal circumstances anyway. Better to just sit and wallow for a bit, because life sucks.
Listening to that impulse is how grief tips over into actual depression, so, in the midst of the grieving process, I’m finding that maybe the most important lesson was one that I picked up through travel, and through running, which is to just keep moving. Movement has been important literally, as the only positive emotions I’ve felt some days have been when I’ve gone out for runs, or hikes, or bike rides. But the larger point is figurative. One has to allow themselves to rest, and to have some grace when emotional exhaustion contributes to physical exhaustion, but “allowing themselves to rest” isn’t usually a major challenge for someone as melancholy as me. The bigger challenge is continuing to do the things that help. Running, hiking, biking, but also writing, investing in relationships, learning. Just keep moving means just keep living.
That movement in and of itself eventually becomes meaningful (another religious lesson, taken from my experience of pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago), sometimes while it’s happening, but maybe more often in retrospect. Eventually positive experiences pile up, making the bad ones seem less traumatic, and you begin to see that even experiences that were terrible eventually pass. You meet people who can empathize, and you integrate your traumatic experiences into your personal narrative in ways that begin to be helpful for you and for others. They become things you made it through, rather than just things that suck. And the crappy period of life becomes a transitional one in retrospect.
Grief’s assertion that “Life is meaningless” doesn’t really get you anywhere, but it does seem more useful to focus on death’s opposite lesson about meaninglessness: that it’s something to be avoided while you're living. Of all of the complicated gut reactions I’ve had to Dad’s passing, I think the most helpful has been the impulse to not waste any of my life. Cut out the crap that’s a waste of time, and invest in the important stuff.
Specifics are harder than generalities, and I’m not entirely clear what “not wasting life” means in practice, but it definitely means maximizing our time spent travelling, and generally doing cool things outside. It’s a ride that we were already on, but one with a stronger engine now, fuelled by a keen sense of my own mortality. Learning Spanish in Latin America, thru-hiking Te Araroa, biking around Europe, backpacking in Southeast Asia – they were all things I wanted to do before, but now they’re goals to start planning concretely for, because they’re possible, and because someday I’m going to die.
A couple of days ago we took our first step for the next stage in our travel experience, and booked tickets to Guatemala on January 29th. This month we’re making money. Next month we’re using it to pick a skill, and to keep moving.