Who in their right mind would want a free pass to the kind of roller coaster ride that life has taken us on for the past couple of months? My own feelings have gone from exhilaration to hopelessness and everything in between. I stay at home, go out only for necessities, see the shelves remain empty in the stores, notice the ever-present need to take precautions to protect myself from other people or environments, and find myself in front of an electronic screen for human interaction. I watch the feelings come and go. But when I get caught up, all I want to do is get off the ride.
Everyone I’ve talked to has spoken of having difficulty with various forms of depression, anxiety, worry and anger. I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t experienced some variation of those feelings at some point, whether lingering or in passing. Over and over again, I see that when we don’t really understand how to relate to our feelings, it’s a rough ride. Me, too. Up one day, down the next. Or maybe it’s up one moment, down the next. Whichever way it happens, it really helps to know how to meet those feelings when they arise and how to be neutral or unphased by them.
No one paid money to get on this ride, but we’re all having our turns on it. Some of us go kicking and screaming, others have a more neutral approach, and there are a very few who are open to it. By that I mean they’re not resisting it. How do they do that?
The first time I ever rode on a roller coaster was with my oldest brother who I trusted implicitly. As our car was slowly being pulled up the first big hill, my eyes were shut tight; I was gripping the handlebar with both hands and all I could hear was the sound of the slow, steady clanking of the chains as we came closer and closer to the top. My brother looked at me and told me to open my eyes. I opened them just as we went over the top and the ride was scary, but really not that bad, to tell the truth. For years I resented him for that “advice” - but I’ve come to see that what he was encouraging me to do was to be willing to experience it with open eyes (and an open mind). I went back on that same ride many times after that, sometimes with my eyes closed, but mostly with my eyes open. I discovered it was a much better ride with my eyes open.
Why? Because I wasn’t shutting out what was right in front of me. I saw it all - or at least as much as anyone could see while racing down that track. By the time we’d gotten to the end of that first ride, I knew that whatever feelings I had felt wouldn’t kill me or permanently scar me emotionally. There was something inside me that wasn’t afraid to be afraid. That “something” was deeper than the experience of the roller coaster, that made it possible to go through something scary and be untouched by it. I also realized that the ride, though intense, would end.
Our feelings can be so intense - sometimes they seem so overwhelming that we think we need to shut our eyes tight and wall ourselves off until they pass. But what I learned on that first roller coaster was that I - we - have the capacity to be on the ride with all its twists and turns and get off and ask, “what’s next?” When we realize we are meant to experience them and let them go in order to be present to what’s next, we don’t hold on to the experience by telling ourselves over and over again what it was like. We go on from there.
To me, this pandemic is quite the roller coaster ride. It gives us the opportunity to have ups and downs, twists and turns to which we then have our own experience, which changes according to what we are able to notice and respond to. It will eventually come to an end. How we experience it - either with curiosity and openness or resistance and panic - or a combination of them all - can be easier than we think. This is not to say that our lives now are just a ride in the park. The pandemic does have life threatening consequences. We need to take the necessary precautions, but in addition to that, we can ride it out without letting it scare us out of our wits or prevent us from having a different, healthier and wiser perspective each time we go around another curve.
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