Sovereignty is a Relational Concept

(Listen to me read the post)

A few years ago, I had a pretty big a-ha moment when I realized that the concept of holding space (which I’ve spent the last seven years exploring in a deep way as I developed programs and wrote a book about it) is, at its core, about freedom and sovereignty. Here’s a quote from one of the last chapters of my book

“If I treat you as someone entitled to your own sovereignty, it means that I assume you have the same right to self-govern your life as I. You get to tell me how you want to be treated and I can choose to accept those boundaries or walk away.

“Sovereignty is what we’ve been talking about throughout this discussion on holding space – that we offer love to each other without attachment, manipulation, control, or boundary-crossing. It’s the starting point to developing healthy, strong social contracts between us.”

It’s taken me a lot of hard learning to get to the place where I can embrace a concept like sovereignty. As I’ve written about in the past, I had to let go of a lot of social conditioning, work through some trauma and abuse, and rewrite some old narratives to even begin to believe I have a right to self-govern my life and choose what’s best for me and my body. Similarly, I had to learn how to treat other people as sovereign individuals, and that’s especially tricky when you’re a parent trying to respect your daughters’ boundaries but haven’t often had your own boundaries respected. I still slip up sometimes, and the old scripts still play in my head, especially when I’m tired, confused, or feel beaten up, but I feel clearer and clearer about what it means to own my sovereignty and be in relationships with people who are equally sovereign.

Lately, though, I’ve had some concerns about the ways in which sovereignty gets talked about, especially in the wellness/self-help industry. It’s becoming an increasingly common term among those who talk about things like personal empowerment, self-love, etc. 

Here’s what concerns me… Some of what’s being said ignores the way in which sovereignty is a relational concept.

When you talk about sovereignty without also talking about community and the kinds of social contracts that allow people to be in relationships while still maintaining their sovereignty, then you’re probably actually talking about selfishness and willful ignorance of the impact of your choices. And when you’re talking about those things, then your version of sovereignty is rooted in colonization rather than equity.

A sovereign nation becomes a colonizing nation when it takes its sovereignty too far, ignores the sovereignty of others, and lives by its own set of rules. It bulldozes over other nations’ rights (especially weaker and/or more community-oriented nations), exploits whatever resources it wants, enslaves and marginalizes people of other nations, and ignores any treaties that might have been written.

An individual can take their sovereignty too far in much the same way, centering their own right to do what they want over anyone else’s rights. 

Sadly, most of us have been socially conditioned by the colonization that’s steeped into our cultures. As a result, when we claim a word like sovereignty (as the self-empowerment influencers have done), the concept can still hold the shadow of the culture within it. What you end up with is self-empowered people who believe in their own rights to self-govern their own bodies and choose what’s best for them, but who don’t recognize that those choices might actually be harming other people.

Let’s say, for example, that your self-care practice involves paying people to care for your children and clean your house while you get a massage. You have a sovereign right to do all of those things (and I’m all for it). But… let’s imagine that the people doing these things for you are exploited labourers who aren’t being fully compensated for their work because they’re undocumented immigrants or they’re marginalized in a way that makes other work hard to find. Is that truly a sovereign self-care practice if it doesn’t uphold the sovereignty and rights of others? 

Or let’s say that you believe you have the sovereign right not to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic and you pass the virus on to the person working at the grocery store who passes it on to their immuno-compromised child or elderly parent who dies as a result. Is that truly a sovereign choice if it ignores the sovereignty and rights of that family?

Sovereignty has a shadow side and that shadow looks like colonization. If your sovereignty does not acknowledge and uphold the sovereignty of others, then it’s individualism, and an excuse to be self-centred in your choices. 

The only way for sovereignty to work in the world is for it to be interwoven with community (which comes with morality, responsibility, and justice).

Sovereignty needs guardrails. To avoid the shadow side, we need to hold it in a relationship with community. Social contracts serve as the guardrails, holding the two in balance.

We can think about sovereignty and community as a yin and yang relationship – they function together, balancing each other out and holding each other accountable. Within each is a bit of the other. And in the space in between is a social contract that weaves the relationship together and keeps one from swallowing the other whole. 

Community that’s left unchecked swallows individual rights and erases sovereignty. Sovereignty that’s left unchecked destroys community and leaves everyone isolated and paranoid of each other.   

Social contracts (like treaties between countries) guide us in naming and honouring what our individual rights are, what boundaries we need in order to uphold each person’s sovereignty, what we’re willing to give up in service to the community, how we’ll share and/or distribute assets and resources, how we’ll address conflict, and how we’ll celebrate and cherish the bond between us. Not only do they guide the relationship and protect each person’s freedom within that relationship, they also offer the freedom to leave if the relationship no longer serves or if there is irreparable harm done. Clear and supportive social contracts make a relationship stronger, more resilient, more adaptable, and more supportive of the people in it. 

When Krista and I entered into a business partnership, we went through a process called Conscious Contracts (with a lawyer trained in the process) and we developed a Peace Covenant that gives us guardrails for our relationship. This helps us hold both sovereignty and community as values at the core of our business. What Krista has often said throughout this process is “I don’t want to be in a relationship with anyone who feels trapped in that relationship or who clings to it too desperately.” We value the relationship, and we are both free to leave if/when that feels necessary.

There is also a process called Blueprints of We that is a form of social contract that could be helpful for all kinds of relationships (not just business partnerships). I encourage you to check it out for your marriage, your family, your community organization, your church, etc.

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P.S.If you want to learn more about how to hold space for people’s sovereignty, while also leaning in to community, we welcome you to join us for the Holding Space Foundation Program. Registration just opened for the session that starts in October 2021.

Expectations, Trauma, and Over-Functioning

A few weeks ago, when I was teetering on the edge of crawl-under-the-covers-and-don’t-come-out-until-2022 burnout, I was on Zoom with a couple of wise friends. We were checking in about how our lives were going, and I had just unloaded a long list of stressors, fumbles, and mom-worries. I was fighting back tears.

They both looked at me with kindness and one of them said “Nothing is expected of you here.” That’s when the tears spilled out and down my face.

My body wasn’t entirely sure what to do with their offering. Was it REALLY possible that a space was available to me where there were NO expectations? Could I REALLY be fully myself and not have to meet anyone’s needs or worry about letting people down? 

While, on the one hand, the tension in me started to ease (because I have a high level of trust in these two friends), on the other hand there was still a little voice whispering “This is too good to be true. Stay on alert because they might change their minds.”

I live in a body that is highly attuned to other people’s expectations and easily triggered if I can’t read those expectations or doubt my capacity to meet them. Raised by a father who was prone to anger and a mother who was prone to insecurity and self-doubt, I learned early how to read the room. If the expectations of one weren’t met, I risked facing anger. If the expectations of the other weren’t met, I risked the parentification of having to soothe the self-deprecation and shame. Add to that the expectations of being the oldest daughter on a farm where poverty was always knocking at the door, who had to take on extra responsibilities when Mom had to find full-time work. Add to that a religion that taught me that if I didn’t make the right choices and meet the expectations laid out in the Bible, I was doomed to hell.

And then I married a man who was prone to both anger AND insecurity (probably because that was what was familiar to me). I spent the next twenty-two years on high alert, trying to read the expectations and anticipate which of those reactions would be triggered if expectations weren’t met. Add to that the expectations of three daughters with their own needs (who were also learning to navigate their dad’s moods and needs). Add to that the expectations of a demanding career and then the financial burden of self-employment. Add to that the residual effect of a religion that told me I had to be a good wife and a culture that idealizes the sacrifice of motherhood.

Anticipating expectations and meeting needs is deeply engrained in the way I live and, quite frankly, it contributed to the success I had in my past career as a Communications Director. It’s part of what has always made me “high-functioning” and “calm under stress” and “a good leader”. (Back when I was sixteen and had to take over for my mom who’d been hospitalized, many people commented on my high capacity to support the family’s needs. That’s been the theme in many, many crises and high-stress situations since. Because we are so reliable under stress, high-functioning people like me tend to overlook our trauma and stress until one day we crumble and it can no longer be ignored.)

That’s why the tend-and-befriend trauma response resonates with me as much as it does. I could never fully see myself in fight, flight, or freeze, so it took a long time for me to recognize that there was trauma in me. When I learned that there was a fourth response, my whole life suddenly made sense. I know what it means to be on high alert and how to discern, in an instant, who has to be protected and who has to be calmed in order to minimize the threat. I know what it means to deprioritize my own needs when there is a threat (real or perceived). I know how to kick into high-functioning-mode when the expectations are high. I know how to scan for possible danger, how to soothe those who are afraid and how to calm those who are angry.

I know how to do all of that at the expense of myself. 

When you’ve had a period in your life when you had to spend your days in a psychiatric ward with your husband after his suicide attempt and evenings with your anxious children who don’t understand what happened to their dad, you learn some pretty unique and specific skills in “tending and befriending”. And your body remembers and is easily activated back into that kind of high alert whenever a new threat shows up.

That activation was present a few weeks ago when my friends made that kind offering of space without expectations. And that’s why my body was reluctant to trust it. Because a space without expectations, where people care for me unconditionally, is a space my amygdala tells me is unfamiliar and unpredictable and therefore unsafe.

If you’re a long-time reader, you might be wondering… how does a person with this kind of trauma end up spending her life teaching people how to hold space? Isn’t that counter-intuitive?

No, quite the opposite. It is precisely BECAUSE I am so highly attuned to what’s in the room that I learned early how to listen to people, how to tune in to the complexity, how to set aside my own baggage in the face of other people’s needs, and how to ask good questions that help people articulate their needs, desires, and fears. And because I was so accustomed to being in spaces and relationships where expectations were high (and the consequences of unmet expectations were equally high), I was uniquely able to identify and articulate what it means to release oneself of those expectations and to hold space without attachment to outcome. (It’s worth noting that the section of my book on “holding space for yourself” was the hardest section for me to write – I needed to dig a little deeper for that.)

Because I know, so intimately, what it means to have space hijacked, I also know what it means to have space held. Sometimes the deepest clarity comes when you’ve spent a lot of time examining the flipside of something.

It was partly my own longing that led me to this work. I could see it and name it and dream it, and then, because my trauma also made me high-functioning, I could begin to build it and invite people into it… and fiercely protect it and work doggedly on it until it grew.

My trauma has alchemized into a gift. 

But… it isn’t always a gift. It’s a two-sided coin. It holds both shadow and light. 

The shadow side of it means that sometimes I still over-function. Sometimes I get burned out from the over-functioning. Sometimes I try to control situations that are outside of my control. Sometimes I slip into performance mode because I’m trying to meet expectations. Sometimes I spiral into over-thinking and over-doing and over-tending and over-befriending. And sometimes I go into a tailspin if I can’t read the expectations or there are too many of them or I lack the capacity to meet them and I fear the consequences. Sometimes the simple act of opening my in-box can be paralyzing because I fear it will be full of people’s expectations and/or disappointments over unmet expectations.

I am working hard to witness and heal these patterns in myself, and to catch myself before I go into a tailspin. I am spending more and more time in conversations and relationships like the one I mentioned above where the expectations are low (or at least clearly articulated and not projected). I am carving out more and more intentional time for myself where there are no expectations (including being off social media, where I sometimes take on too much of the expectations that I be “The Good Author/Influencer/Ally/Friend”). I am letting go of some of my perfectionism and learning (and relearning) that sometimes I need to let people down in order to be true to myself. I am, once again, in therapy, working to loosen the grip of the trauma that’s been re-activated this year. I have a strong business partner who manages a lot of the expectations and reminds me to rest and have healthy boundaries. I am dating someone who has high capacity for naming and claiming her own expectations, for witnessing me fully and authentically, and for taking responsibility for her own baggage (which has been rather revolutionary). And, as my daughters grow into their adulthood, I am taking on less and less responsibility and trusting them to be self-aware and self-lead (and they are stepping up to the challenge).

This summer, I am going on sabbatical and, other than helping my daughters move to faraway cities on opposite sides of the country (yikes!), my time will be blessedly free of responsibilities or expectations. After a year of so much intensity, where my body has been on high alert not only to the danger posed by the virus (especially for my immuno-compromised daughter), but also the additional pressure of launching a book, a new business, and several new programs, I need to claim spaciousness for rest and restoration and nourishment and fun and laughter and love.  

I am becoming more and more curious about this next phase of my life, when my daughters move out, when the Centre is in its second year and on more solid ground, and the responsibilities and expectations are reduced. Will I know how to adapt to this new way of being? Will my body truly be able to relax into it? Will it heal me or scare me or a bit of both? Will I set healthy boundaries and claim space for rest? Or will I take on more responsibilities than is necessary just because that’s what I’m familiar with? Time will tell. Check back in a year or two.

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P.S. If you’re nearing burnout from trying to meet people’s expectations, you might find meaning and support in my new self-study program, Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm. It’s offered on a pay-what-you-can because we want it to be accessible to anyone who needs it.

Tales of an Invisible Woman

image credit: Steiner Engeland, Unsplash

Once there was an Invisible Woman. 

She wasn’t born that way – in the beginning she was just like every other child, expressing herself freely and wanting to be seen and accepted and loved for who she was. Sadly, though, it was her quest for love and acceptance that convinced her that, in order to survive in the world as it presented itself to her, she had to become an Invisible Woman.

First she watched her mother for clues in how to become an Invisible Woman. Her mother had become quite adept at it, so there were lots of things to learn from her. She watched her mother sacrifice nearly everything for her husband, her children, her church, and the people who needed her. She noticed how her mother made herself disappear by rarely expressing an opinion, especially when there were men present whose opinions mattered more. She noticed how, in church, her mother never complained about the fact that she and the other women were only allowed to teach Sunday School (it was okay to be Visible to children) and feed people and that when it came to any forms of leadership or power, they had to stay Invisible.

She also received a lot of clues from her cultural and religious lineage. Historically, her people were known as The Quiet in The Land because of the way they had withdrawn from society due to persecution. (She learned of one woman who’d been burned at the stake with a screw through her tongue to prevent her from speaking to the gathered crowds as she prepared to die. Her fifteen year old son later combed through the ashes to find the tongue screw.) Understandably, there was among her people a suspiciousness of Visibility because of the danger it posed.

When she started to emerge into the world outside of her mother’s kitchen and her Sunday School classroom, she noticed that other women behaved much the same way her mother did, so she thought it must be the Right Way to Behave. She wanted to ask questions about whether she had a right to Visibility, and why some people seemed to have more rights than others, but it didn’t seem like there was anyone around who would be receptive to her questions, so she stayed silent.

Because she was busy learning to be Invisible, she learned to camouflage her skills in Leadership and Communication so as not to threaten the people around her who were used to women like her being Invisible. She had a few chances to become at least partially Visible, and she tested them out occasionally, but mostly she got the message that good girls were comfortable being Invisible and trying too hard would mean she was arrogant.   

When she went to university, she decided to study Theatre and Literature, because, secretly, she wanted to write and be on stage, but she didn’t tell too many people about those dreams because she thought they’d laugh at her for her misguided desire for Visibility. She assumed that Visible people must be better than her or smarter than her or they were born with the acceptable gender for Visibility, so she kept convincing herself she was okay with Invisibility.

In her Theatre classes, she tried only half-heartedly to be picked for roles on the stage (even though she secretly wanted them) and instead proved herself to be useful behind the stage where Invisible People could be of service. She started to write plays, and some of them were produced on stage, but mostly she stayed Invisible even when she was the originator of the ideas. When a professor thought that one of her plays was good enough to be submitted to the CBC, she was sure he must be mistaken (because he was allowed to be Visible and couldn’t really understand) so she didn’t follow through.

Her theatre experience revealed to her that she was actually pretty good at helping OTHER people to become Visible (she wrote the words that they said on stage) and that lead to her first career. She became a Communications Professional, which mostly meant that she wrote a lot of words that were either uncredited or credited to other people, and that she advised a lot of people in how to be Visible in a way that served the purpose of the government department or non-profit she was working for. 

She wrote speeches for the people on the stage, she arranged for many people to talk to the media, she organized press conferences and tours, and she produced documentaries, but she stayed resolutely behind the curtain. If you were to look at the photos or videos of events she organized for Prime Ministers, Premiers, scientists, and celebrities, you would see little evidence that she was there. She hired photographers who took pictures of the Visible People and then stood beside the photographers with the lenses pointed away from her.

Periodically, she would renew her attempts at seeking Visibility, but, because she was also becoming a mother (which added a whole new layer of Invisibility), she had little time for that pursuit and found little encouragement. When her first two babies were small and she was on her second maternity leave, she wrote a novel during her daughters’ naps, but when that novel was finished and she was trying to get it published, she had to go back to work and no longer had time for it. The novel sat on her shelf and collected dust along with her other dreams.

One day though, several years later, she recognized the growing restlessness in her, and she finally admitted to herself that she’d never fully given up the hope of Visibility. She had to work through a lot of self-doubt and shame over this, because the voices in her head kept telling her it was a sign of her arrogance and lack of gratitude for the great life she had and the great jobs she was getting with her skills in supporting others’ Visibility, but she decided it was time to at least try. She didn’t think it was just selfishness that wouldn’t let her release the longing.

While still working at supporting other people’s Visibility, she started a blog to test out what it would be like to write about her OWN ideas and stories instead of everyone else’s. At first, she was very secretive about her blog because she was afraid that people would judge her for trying to become Visible. She called that blog Fumbling for Words, because she wasn’t sure she trusted her own words yet and she wanted a place to practice. 

She grew to love that blog, and it sparked a dream in her that she’d someday be able to make a living as a writer. That dream wouldn’t die, and finally, though it seemed completely preposterous to everyone including herself, she quit her job as a Communications Professional, and started her path toward Visibility. 

It wasn’t easy, choosing that path and sticking to it. There were far more bumps than she could have anticipated. She had to make a living to support her family, and so, at the beginning, she still found herself doing lots of work that supported other people’s Visibility more than her own. And she had to keep wrestling with her self-doubt and fear and other people’s judgement and her social conditioning, and some days she wanted to run back to Invisibility because she felt overwhelmed and vulnerable. Some days she convinced herself she wasn’t meant for Visibility.

Sadly, she discovered that some of the people she cared about weren’t very comfortable with her increased Visibility, so some of her relationships changed. She considered the possibility of returning to Invisibility, in order to keep her life more stable and make the people around her more comfortable, but once she’d committed to this path, she knew she could never be happy going back. 

The thing that surprised her most, though, was how much she started to notice the expectations and projections that are placed on Visible people. The more she became Visible, the more she exposed herself to other people’s criticism, blame, and expectations that she perform a certain way. Especially when she started to move beyond simply sharing her stories to also sharing the wisdom she’d gained, she noticed that people either wanted to put her on a pedestal as a wise guide or tear her down because she proved to be more flawed than they wanted their heroes to be. 

One day, she became more Visible than she could have dreamed possible. A blog post (about her mom dying and a nurse who held space at the deathbed) went viral and suddenly there were millions of people all over the world reading her words. This was very exciting for her, but it was also very stressful. When her inbox filled up with emails from lovely people who wanted to share their stories with her, she suddenly felt overwhelmed by the pressure of wanting to support all of these people who, like her, just wanted to be Seen. She tried to witness them all and send them all love, but it became too much for her to carry alone (especially while she was also struggling with the primary relationship in her life in which she was not feeling Seen), and so she shut down her inbox for awhile and disappeared. 

She didn’t disappear for long, though, because she now knew that there was a Purpose to her Visibility. It wasn’t just a longing to be Seen, or a desire to make herself the centre of the narrative – it was a longing to support all of the other people who also wanted to be Seen. She realized she had a special gift for seeing Invisible People and perhaps that was what her quest for Visibility was all about.

Before she could support all of those other people, though, she found that she had work to do in making sure she was strong enough for what Visibility required of her. She removed herself from the relationship that made her feel Invisible and she began a search for the kind of people who would strengthen her and stand by her as she became more and more Visible. She sought therapy and she did lots of other deep work to help her stand more firmly in self-love and courage. She also found a person who could work alongside her in helping her to develop more clear boundaries that kept her more protected from other people’s projections and expectations (and she eventually made that person her business partner). 

As she became more and more confident being the Visible Woman, her work continued to grow and the community around it grew with it. She still had moments of crippling self-doubt, and moments when other people’s opinions would sideline her for awhile, but because her Purpose felt so clear and there was now so much Meaning attached it, she was able to return again and again to the work that made her come Alive.

One day, the Visible Woman finally made her long-held dream come true… she published a book. It wasn’t the book she’d written years earlier when her children were small, or even the book she wrote near the beginning of her quest for Visibility, it was the book that grew out of the blog post that millions of people had read. It was her response to the hundreds of people in her inbox who wanted to feel Seen and wanted to know how to support other people in being Seen.

In realizing this dream, the Visible Woman discovered that everything from her past had value – even the parts where she was mostly Invisible and supporting other people in becoming Visible – because it turned out that her quest was not just about her own Visibility. It was about learning how to share that Visibility, how to help people step into their own Visibility, how to teach people to hold the space for Visibility for all, and how to help people heal from the pain of their own Invisibility.

Now that her book is published, the Visible Woman gets to speak with lots of media people about that book (and she laughed quite a lot when her publisher assigned a Communications Professional to help HER to be Visible), and she gets to spend her days supporting a lot of beautiful people who are Becoming Visible and who are learning The Art of Holding Space (which could also be called The Art of Helping People Feel Seen).

We can’t really say that the Visible Woman lived happily ever after, because there is a lot of responsibility that comes with being Visible and sometimes there is still some pain and discomfort, but we CAN say that she found meaning, purpose, contentment and community in her quest for Visibility. And she continues to delight in making Visibility feel like more than just a dream for the people in her circles.

*****

If you are on your own quest for Visibility, join us in the upcoming online writing program Write for Love and Liberation. Or take a solo journey along The Spiral Path.

Pandemic: This nebulous landscape

Listen to me read:

Nebulous [ neb-yuh-luhs ] 
adjective

  • hazy, vague, indistinct, or confused
  • cloudy or cloudlike
  • of or resembling a nebula or nebulae in deep space; nebular

When the lockdown is over, I will go back to the float spa. When I climb into that white pod, turn off the lights and music, and lie down to float in the warm saltwater, I will drift away into a nebulous field where there are no edges, no beginning and no end, no division between water, air and body. I will be, once again, an astronaut who’s climbed out of the spaceship and is floating in zero gravity. Sometimes, as I float into semi-consciousness, I wonder if the umbilical cord that tethers astronaut to ship is still holding me or if I’m floating in the ether alone, without it. Surprisingly, it’s never an anxious thought, just a curiosity. The floating feels good and safe and free.

Nebulous. 

My life became less and less tethered this year. I am beginning to float more. My youngest daughter graduated from high school. My oldest graduated from university. All three are perched on the edge of the nest, ready to fly off into broader spaces. They are loosening their tethers to the mothership. They make plans, they speak of new lives in new cities, for when the pandemic no longer holds them here. And in the meantime, my relationship with them shapeshifts into something new.

What happens, I wonder, to the mothership when the astronauts no longer need the tether? When they have found other people, other places in which to anchor? Does the mothership take flight too? Does she become young again, and drift off into unexplored territory, waving at her children as she passes? Or does she simply become one with the void?

Untethered.

My body of work is finding ways to become less tethered to me as well. A new business partner is tending to many of the threads that keep the work grounded. She waves me along as I float further and further away from the ground, into new spaces, new ideas. “Go. Explore,” she says, as I put on my spacesuit and open the spaceship door. My teaching work, too, holds me down less and less. New teachers come in behind me, they hold the space I once held, and they infuse it with new energy and new wisdom. My voice, while still needed, is now part of a chorus and no longer a solo act. I have new freedom to float into uncharted territory.

My book, too, has untethered itself from me. Like cells splitting to grow into organisms, the words that once belonged to me and were only on my screen replicated themselves thousands of times, in digital and print form, and landed in homes and hearts and classrooms and libraries all over the world. Those replicated versions pass from hand to hand without me, untethered to me, living lives of their own. They hold a memory of me, the stories of me, but grow into other things, plant seeds for new ideas, without me. Some even in languages I don’t speak. “Go. Explore,” they say, as I climb out of the spaceship door.

Floating.

I wonder about this virus. Tiny. Invisible. Floating through the air from body to body. Untethered and free to roam. No umbilical cord holding it in place. If we could anthropomorphize it, give it a mind, a voice, and a purpose, what would it tell us? “I want to kill you.” Or “I want to wake you up.” Or “I want to thrive.” Probably, simply, “I’m just doing what I’m meant to do – find ways to live.”

Would it teach us how to live? Teach us how to thrive? Teach us how to be present and mindful and connected and interdependent? Would it teach us how to protect each other, to be less selfish, to work together toward a common purpose? Or would it scoff at us for the many ways we refuse to change, and the many ways we give it easy access to bodies in which to grow and pathways in which to travel?

Unbound.

I find myself drawn to the darkness this winter. I go for long walks on snow-covered paths, long after the sun has set, after all of the neighbours have headed indoors. I walk quiet streets and venture further and further into shadowy parks and unlit paths through the woods. The darkness feeds me, nourishes me, wakens me, grounds me. 

The deer are shadowy ghosts on the frozen river, and one night a nebulous shape moves toward me through the darkness on a quiet street. Is it a dog? A large cat? I don’t see clearly until our eyes meet. It is a coyote, darting from shadow to shadow at the edge of the road, claiming the neighbourhood when the people are gone. I stand, still and breathless, and watch the trickster until he disappears into the grey at the edge of my sight. This feels like gift sent from the mothership. A thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth dissolves. But only for a moment.

Mystical.

At the beginning of this pandemic, I was in the Netherlands. Many late nights on ancestry.com had given me the names of the towns where my ancestors lived centuries ago.  Back before the torture began and they had to flee to Germany, to Russia and then to Canada, always just a breath ahead of their oppressors. Back before they became pariahs, before the establishment declared them to be dangerous for their beliefs and the genocidal agenda began.

I stood there, on those narrow cobblestone streets in little Dutch towns, and I sensed them there with me, behind me, holding me, reminding me. Their DNA, still alive in me. Their stories, their trauma, waking up in my body after a long slumber. I wondered what it was like to be a refugee, an exile, an outcast. I wondered what it was like to lose your homeland, to become untethered from the place that once nurtured you. I wondered, and yet somehow I also knew.

Ungrounded.

When I returned home from my ancestors’ homeland, I dug for pieces of me in old boxes in my basement. Threads connecting me to my past. There, buried in the boxes, on journal pages and letters home to her mother, was the traumatized twenty-two-year-old, lonely and unprotected on her bed as the rapist climbed through the window and violated her body. I cried for her as she poured herself out onto those pages, trying to heal, trying to find wholeness, trying not to be crushed under the weight of what had been done to her. I cried for her shame, her innocence, and the poison she took into her body and tried to disgorge onto the page. I cried for the way she had never been told that her body was worthy, that sex wasn’t meant to hurt, that men didn’t get to take things from her that she didn’t want to give. I ached for the way she’d become untethered, unmoored, ungrounded.

Is she still me? Am I still her? Where are the edges between her and I? Where is the line between her trauma and my healing? Or is it all nebulous, without shape, without edges, without beginning or end? When does one give way to the other? Is there a moment when trauma loosens its hold and begins to seep out of a body that wants to heal?

Incomplete.

I like starry nights, but my favourites, right now, are the cloudy nights when the snow-covered city is held in a pinkish-grey dome. I can walk forever on those nights, navigating the nebulous landscape, venturing into parks and woodlands that hold too much darkness on starry nights. On the unlit trails between the cathedral spires of leaf-less trees, I can’t see clearly enough to know where the path ends and the deep snow begins. I lean into trust and memory and plant one foot in front of the other, hoping my foot won’t sink deeply into untrodden snow. And sometimes, when it’s snowing and I return the way I arrived, my half-hour-old footprints are already obliterated. Was I ever there, or was it just an illusion? Do I hold enough substance to even make a mark?

I am mostly alone on my night-time pilgrimages, but one night I meet a couple carrying flashlights that lend glaring light to the ten feet in front of them but make the void beyond them even darker. I want to ask those people why they spoil the gentle darkness with the light, but I stay silent. I don’t want to spoil the gentle stillness with my voice. Instead, I carry on past them, deeper into the woods, and my eyes readjust to the darkness. Once again, I recognize the nebulous shapes around me as my sturdy and reliable friends, the trees. And sometimes a deer. 

People ask me if I’m not scared, out there alone in the dark. I say “My safety was taken away from me at home, in my own bed. Out there in the woods is not where my demons live.”

Obscure.

I am in a new relationship now. No, not new… evolved. Shapeshifted. Once a friendship, now… more. Intimacy. Care. Intention. Listening. Exploration. Holding. Touching… but only for fleeting moments. We are hundreds of miles apart, and there is a pandemic in the gap between us, so we cancel plans to spend time together, and instead we grow a relationship in the nebulous digital spaces where there is no third dimension. Only flat video images and words on a screen. We long for more shape, less nebulousness, but the pandemic stands as a sentry at the gate, guarding the gap between us. We each stay tethered to our own cities.

What is the shape of love when bodies can’t collide? How do you become tethered when there is no touch and miles of space between you? What does this make us? What do we call ourselves?

Shapeless. 

In my basement is a large canvas. At the beginning of the pandemic, when fear and confusion and overwhelm and grief were the ingredients of the soup we were all swimming in, I threw paint at the void of that canvas and then dove in with my hands, smearing the paint around in swirls and nebulous shapes. Waves of emotion came through me as I painted, layer upon layer of paint applied only with my hands. Catharsis. Release. Deconstruction.

In the months since, that canvas calls me back, again and again. I layer on more and more paint, always obliterating whatever took shape the last time I stood in front of it. Each time I visit it, it evolves into something different than it was before. The canvas receives it all – my anger, my disappointment, my sadness, my joy, my fear, my love – and it blends it all together in swirls of colour. I am reminded that there are only blurred lines between my emotions and no single feeling speaks of only one truth.

Blurred.

My identity is reshaping itself in this nebulous time. Author. Business partner. I add those, like layers of paint on the canvas, to the evolving shape of who I am, who I was, and who I am becoming. I wonder if my ancestors knew, when I stood on their land at the beginning of this year, the shape of who I’d be, centuries after they died. I wonder how their identity is still alive in me, how I am tethered to them, how they witness me, if they do, from the beyond, on the other side of the thin place. 

I wonder what stories DNA would tell, if we could give them voices too, like the virus. Would they sing ancestral songs of triumph and resilience? Would they chant laments in memory of the pain? Would they whisper to us, as they shape us into who we are, the secrets of the hard-won wisdom woven into them by those they shaped before us?

Ephemeral.

My son once floated in the nebulous space in my womb, tethered to the mothership, nourished through my umbilical cord. I wonder what he thought while he floated. Did he feel safe, like I do in the float tank? Did he dream of the day the cord would loosen and allow him to begin to explore the world? Or did he want to stay in there where he was safe, for as long as he could, with me?

But then, before his body had grown enough to support his journey outside of me, the membrane that held that space for him was violently torn by a doctor trying to protect him, and he was left exposed. The fluid that he’d floated in drained from my body, like a leak in the float tank. He tried to survive, and for weeks he did, but then one night, a tiny bacteria (harmless in me but dangerous in him), as tiny as the virus that is now killing thousands, entered his once-protected space and snuffed out his unborn life.

I wonder where he is now. Is he with the ancestors, on the other side of the thin place, watching, witnessing, floating? And is he telling them about the shape of me, from the inside where he once lived? I wonder what secrets his DNA whispered into my body before he floated away.

Fluid.

And now, perhaps something else uncovered in the shape of who I am… neurodivergent? My daughters, both diagnosed with ADHD, point toward me and say “you too, mom.” They see the patterns I don’t yet see, they point to the ways my brain works like theirs, they witness the places I fumble, forget, and get distracted. And they also see the ways I triumph, adapt and fight to thrive. They guide me into seeing myself anew. Who am I if I have ADHD? And what does it change in me if I fit into this unknown and yet familiar shape?

And there is one more layer of paint emerging in this nebulous year. Or perhaps an old layer, once submerged, now being revealed. My new relationship… it’s with a woman. She sits on the other side of my video screen, tethered to her city, separated by miles and a pandemic. Who does this make me now? Lesbian? Bi-sexual? Queer? Shapeshifter? Who was I then and who am I now? Or am I simply floating in the ether, searching for a new tether that offers the safety and belonging I wasn’t sure I’d know? Does it matter what I call myself? Or her? Do I need my identity tethered to a word? (Perhaps I do, if only to acknowledge the courage and resilience of those who came before and cleared the way so that I could float here now, in a safer place.)

Unidentified.

I am finding that I want to play with words the way I play with paint on the canvas. I want to swirl them around with my hands, squish them with my fingers, blur them together, and make nebulous shapes in the chaos. After long months of arranging words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, chapters into a book – and all of it into meaning, I want to remove the boxes. Remove the form. Remove even the meaning. Let the words float.

And what am I left with then, if the words flow like the paint from my hands onto blank pages? What do I hold, if there is no shape, if there are no answers, if there is no meaning, if it is all nebulous?

Liminal.

And perhaps this is what the pandemic offers. This nebulous space in which to float. This way of being that is less tethered to doing and completing and resolving. These long, solitary walks in shadowy places that change the shape of who we are, that blur the edges of who we encounter, that give us new identity and new connection to the spaces we’re in. This liminal landscape that allows us to transform, to shapeshift, to blur the edges, to become something new, to reclaim something old, to be reminded of who we already are.

Perhaps this is what the virus would say, if it could. “Just be.”

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If you find that you, too, are being reshaped in these nebulous times, you might want to join my exploration by signing up for 52 Weeks of Holding Space.

When we search for meaning, sometimes there’s a shadow lurking underneath

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” – Viktor E. Frankl

Before my trip to Ethiopia in 2007, my friend and colleague Sam (who lived there and was traveling with us into some of the poorest parts of the country) recommended I read the book Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. “You will see some hard things,” he said, “and you’ll need to find ways of making meaning so that you’ll be able to cope with the way it will break your heart.” 

He was right – we saw hard things. And my heart felt a little tattered. We saw poverty and food insecurity on a level that was hard for me to comprehend from my North American perspective. We also saw countless abandoned army tanks on the sides of the road, and men in remote villages carrying machine guns – evidence of the many years Ethiopia has known conflict. 

But we also saw beauty and resilience, people making art and music, and people praying and dancing and worshipping God. We saw people loving their families and gathering with their neighbours. We saw people helping each other and serving their communities. Everywhere we looked, there were people shaping meaning in the midst of hardship. 

I didn’t have to search for ways to make meaning – I simply had to pay attention to the ways that people were modelling it for me. 

I’ve been thinking back on that time lately, partly because there is, once again, conflict brewing in the part of Ethiopia where we traveled, and partly because, in the middle of a pandemic, I see many people making meaning as a way of coping with this strange collective hardship we’re all in. Once again, I see people praying, singing, dancing, making art and music, connecting with their communities, and serving others. 

Viktor Frankl, in his years in concentration camps during the Holocaust, came to the conclusion that those who best survived and thrived despite the hardships of the camps were those who found ways of making meaning out of the experience. By making meaning, they were able to claim their inner freedom and not be crushed by the inhumanity they faced. 

“Everything you have in life can be taken from you except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. This is what determines the quality of the life we’ve lived — not whether we’ve been rich or poor, famous or unknown, healthy or suffering. What determines our quality of life is how we relate to these realities, what kind of meaning we assign them, what kind of attitude we cling to about them, what state of mind we allow them to trigger.” – Viktor Frankl

I have long been a meaning-maker, partly because I’m a storyteller and communicator who’s spent many years honing the craft of shaping stories in ways that inspire and resonate with people. (During that trip to Ethiopia, for example, I was leading a film crew that was gathering stories about the hopefulness of the food aid and food security projects our non-profit supported.) This practice of storytelling has helped me to be reflective of past events and hardships in my life, and to alchemize them from pain into gift. When I can shape something into a story and offer it to others to inspire them in similar hardships, it lessens the pain and releases the bitterness or regret that might be inherent in that memory. After my mom died, for example, I made meaning out of the grief and that meaning-making became the blog post on holding space that grew my work and expanded my community in a significant way. 

Meaning-making heals me and helps me return, again and again, to hopefulness. It grows my resilience and my courage to face other hardships. It has helped me survive many hardships – like rape, stillbirth, divorce, the death of my parents, and the attempted suicides of my former husband. Instead of being crushed by the weight of those hardships, I shaped them into stories that are now at the heart of my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation and Leadership.   

The older I get, though, and the more I wrestle with the beliefs I hold dear – like the value of meaning-making – the more I am able to hold space for the realization that, even in the most beautiful concept, there lurks the possibility of a shadowy underbelly.

Yes, there is a shadow side to meaning-making. Perhaps multiple shadows, in fact. 

For one thing, meaning-making can be a form of spiritual bypassing. If we rush too quickly to find the meaning in something, if we try to transcend the pain by choosing hopefulness and meaning, then we can rush past the deeper work we might need to do, we can gaslight ourselves into ignoring the harm that’s being done to us, and we can stuff down the hard emotions that need to be felt and released instead of stifled. (I, for example, have ignored abuse and gaslighted myself because I was striving to find meaning in it.)

Beyond simply doing harm to ourselves, spiritual bypassing like that can allow injustice and harm to continue unabated. It’s like a free hall pass for abusers. If, for example, Holocaust survivors were only focused on their own meaning-making and rushed too quickly past the injustice, then those who perpetrated the harm would not have been held accountable, the culture that allowed that harm in the first place wouldn’t have changed, and the same harm would continue to be done in the future.

There’s another shadow to meaning-making, and that’s something I see happening in the midst of this pandemic. 

Unless it has healthy roots, the meaning that a person makes of a situation, that helps that person cope with it, might cause them to make bad decisions and might also be harmful to other people. Especially if that meaning is rooted in delusion or half-truths, it can put people directly at risk.

All of us are trying to make meaning of the pandemic. When there is disruption, we make meaning of that disruption in ways that help us maintain what feels important to us – our identity, our relationships, our stability, and our sanity. We search for answers from the media, from the experts, from our politicians, from our communities – whatever voices we trust to help us land on the meaning that makes the most sense.

For many, a random pandemic that can’t be traced to a particular source, that spreads across the globe in unpredictable patterns, and that causes a wide range of symptoms (or lack of symptoms) without a lot of rhyme or reason, feels far too nebulous and complex and scary. It’s hard to defend yourself against it, it’s so complicated that even the world’s best scientists are still struggling to understand it, and there’s nobody to blame for it. It just doesn’t make sense. We want things to make sense.

Especially for those with high anxiety and resistance to chaos because of the trauma of the past, it’s easier to make sense and order out of something (and therefore know how to respond to it) when you can pinpoint an enemy, when there are clear facts that you can cling to, when there’s a clear plan of attack, and when there’s an authoritarian leader who can be trusted to vanquish the enemy.

In a vacuum such as this, when there are so many unknowns and there seems to be so little meaning in all of the hardships we face, we see sometimes desperate and sometimes nefarious attempts at meaning-making bubbling to the surface. Perhaps this is the Universe giving us an opportunity to stop flying so many places so we reduce greenhouse gases. Perhaps there is an evil mastermind who created the virus as a way to frighten and control people and then inject them with tracking devices when they rush to get vaccines. Perhaps it’s tied to 5G technology. Perhaps this is a moment where a cultural reset is being called for. Perhaps there’s an evil cabal of wealthy elites who are feeding off of the blood of frightened children. Perhaps this is God’s punishment for a sinful world. Perhaps governments are colluding to take control of us by making us wear masks. Perhaps the scientists are all in cahoots and the whole pandemic is a hoax. Perhaps there is a hero or lightworker who will emerge to rescue us from this place of darkness.

On a Daily Show video clip, a Trump supporter claimed that the pandemic was created by the Democrats, so that people would be forced to stay home and use mail-in ballots, and that’s how the election was rigged. 

I might not align myself with his particular meaning-making, but I can’t deny that he, too, is a meaning-maker. 

Yes, meaning-making might help us cope and give us hope, and it might help us stay more calm in the face of the uncontrollable things that scare us, but it might also cause us to disconnect from reality, succumb to propaganda and manipulation, and make decisions that cause harm. When we are vulnerable and scared and disconnected from the things that give life meaning, we are more easily manipulated into attaching ourselves to beliefs and communities that give us comfort but ultimately cause harm. For those people who show up at anti-mask rallies, for example, who put other people in their communities at risk, meaning-making is more than just a shadow, it can cause direct harm. 

So what do we do with all of this, then? How do we embrace meaning-making in a way that supports us, but turn away from the kind of meaning-making that causes harm? How do we recognize when meaning-making has become a form of spiritual bypassing or a coping strategy rooted in propaganda, delusion or conspiracy theories?

For one thing, it’s important to avoid rushing too quickly into meaning-making. When we rush too quickly, it’s likely because we’re avoiding the discomfort of feeling lost and not having control over the outcome. That was evident early on in the pandemic, when there was a flurry of people searching for the facts and putting out false information because of the vacuum that existed. There were a lot of people suddenly hosting gatherings and courses that felt like desperate attempts to find meaning in the disruption the pandemic caused.

For another thing, we need to surround ourselves with people who love us and aren’t afraid to challenge us when our meaning-making happens to quickly and/or slips into delusion or harmful coping strategy. We need to develop circles of trust where we can wrestle with hard questions and hold space for discomfort, so that we don’t feel as desperate to find answers.

And for a third thing, we need to develop the practices that will help ground us and resource us when we’re in the midst of the liminal space. Mindfulness practices, body practices, spiritual practices, creativity practices – all of these can be helpful in allowing the anxiety that comes with not knowing to pass through and not control us. My favourite practice right now is my #messycovidartpractice where I layer paint on a large canvas and make a mess of it with my hands. (You can find some of it on my Instagram feed.)

Most of the time, I find that meaning-making is most valuable for the time AFTER the disruption and not necessarily in the middle of it. That’s why, for example, it took me two years for me to write the blog post about holding space at my mom’s death bed. I couldn’t have written that in the midst of the deepest grief – I needed some spaciousness and time to reflect on what meaning the experience at her deathbed had left me with. 

And sometimes, there IS no meaning. Sometimes things are simply random and hard and confusing and chaotic. Sometimes the meaning is simply in the resilience we grow in surviving it.

And sometimes meaning-making is like finding shapes in the clouds – it gives us some momentary pleasure, but it doesn’t change the fact that a cloud is simply a cloud and its shape will change soon after you identify it.

While we’re still in the middle of the liminal space, the best we can do is find the people and practices that help us not to give in to despair, that help us stay present and find things to laugh about, and that help us trust that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel even if we can’t see it yet.  

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For more on how to hold space for yourself in the midst of disruption, check out my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership.

 

Watching the train derail when you can’t get out of the way

photo credit: JP Valery, Unsplash

The workday was finished and I had just picked up my two daughters – one a toddler and one an infant at the time – from daycare and we were on our way home in the family minivan. I was tired and knew that I still had to find enough energy to make supper, feed the girls, and give them the attention they needed after a day away from me. 

There was a train crossing the road, so I stopped at the railway crossing, the second vehicle away from the tracks. Suddenly, a screeching sound caught my attention and I turned to see that the last three cars of the train, still about 50 metres from the road I was on, had come off the tracks and were crashing down to the ground on my side of the tracks. I had only an instant to process what was going on and what was about to happen. The wayward cars were being dragged along by the still-moving train and were in danger of swinging outward to exactly the spot where I sat.

I jammed the van into reverse, but then looked back to see a long line of cars behind me – unless they moved, I had nowhere to go. The railway cars were heading my direction and I was frozen in place, waiting to see if my daughters and I would be crushed by a careening railcar.

Fortunately, the derailed rail cars stayed close enough to the track that none of the vehicles on the road were hit. With my heart pounding, I, and all of the others on the road, turned away from the wreck and found our way onto other roads that would take us home. 

Yesterday morning I was waiting for another train at a crossing not far from where the train derailed and I had a flashback to that moment, over twenty years ago, when I didn’t know whether I’d be able to keep my daughters alive. 

When the tears started to fill my eyes with the memory, I realized it wasn’t just the train I was thinking about. “This is exactly how LIFE feels right now!” I thought. “We are ALL sitting on the road, watching a derailed train barrel down the tracks and all we can do is sit and watch it come toward us wondering whether we’ll be in the path of destruction.”

That derailed train is so many things right now. It’s the pandemic that none of us can control and nobody knows when/if it will touch our families or circles of beloveds. It’s the jobs being lost and the businesses that may not survive the repeated shutdowns. It’s the bank accounts careening toward empty as a result. It’s the changing climate. It’s the racial injustice and the pain and trauma of BIPOC people and the rising tension because there seems to be no sign of the systemic racism and related deaths coming to an end. It’s the coming U.S. election which is causing so much fear not only because a misogynist bully might win again and continue to wreak havoc, but because there is a very real threat of serious disruption and possible violence as a result of the election outcome. It’s a Supreme Court in the U.S. that is now dangerously tipped against the rights of LGBTQ+ people and the reproductive rights of women. 

Many of us, in fact, are at an intersection where multiple derailed trains are coming at us at once and we don’t know which one will wreak the most havoc. For a person of colour in the U.S., for example, or a person with a disability at greater risk because of the pandemic, there are converging trains coming down the track at once.

I don’t write this to be a doomsday prophet or town crier shouting about the end of the world. (I can already imagine the emails I might get from those who want me to post more “positive thoughts” so I don’t “attract” those runaway trains.) I write it to acknowledge that we are in a strange and complex liminal space and none of us has any control over the outcome and in some moments the only thing we can see on the horizon is sure disaster. This is where we are. This is the complexity of the liminal space the world is in right now, and if you are afraid or angry or overwhelmed, you are not alone. And you are not “doing it wrong”. You are human, with real human emotions. And I will never, ever shame you or gaslight you or offer you any spiritual bypassing cliches that would suggest you shouldn’t be having these feelings right now. I’ve been on the road watching that derailed train come toward me and my children – I know how it feels to be powerless in that moment. 

That moment isn’t the end of the story, though. I survived it. And my daughters did too. And trains don’t stay forever off the rails. And moments of terror pass. And even if there is destruction, those of us left behind figure out how to pick up the pieces, and we carry on. And we get stronger. And we discover our own courage and resilience and we turn toward each other and we share the stories and admit our fears so that we can help each other survive. 

And then one day, more than twenty years later, we sit at another train track, where a train passes us smoothly and we remember that we survived. And we are grateful to still be alive and to be able to continue to parent those little girls who are now adults. And we might cry a little, because it feels like another train is coming at us from another direction, but we remember that we have the capacity to survive and that trains pass. Even the derailed ones. 

Here’s what I want to say to you if you’re sitting there, feeling helpless, as the derailed train is coming toward you and your beloveds.

1. Recognize the trauma response. Your body has within it the capacity to respond to moments of threat and stress in what it senses are the right ways to protect you. When the pressure is intense, your amygdala kicks into gear and takes over your brain functioning and nervous system, raising your adrenaline so that you are ready for the flight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend. This quick reactivity serves an important purpose, but it also comes with a cost. For one thing, it makes it very difficult for you to engage the other parts of your brain that are more rational and calm. For another thing, when the trauma from your past is still present in your body, you’ll have a tendency to respond the same way even when the threat isn’t immediate, or isn’t as dangerous as your body senses it to be. That means that, in times of high intensity, especially when multiple trains seem to have become derailed at the same time, you might regularly find yourself with a flooded nervous system and a diminished capacity for calm and rational thought. And sometimes you might even find yourself suffering from adrenal fatigue when your nervous system has been functioning at high alert for too long. Give yourself a break if you’re not able to accomplish much right now or if you seem to be over-reactive to every stimulus. Speak gently to yourself the way you would to a frightened child. Practice soothing yourself with tactile items, gentle touch, or time in nature. Consider seeing a therapist or seek out the medical and/or psychological support you need. 

2. Remember the impermanence of every state. It gives me great comfort to recognize that no emotion ever stays forever. It lets me feel even the intense emotions with a little more ease and presence because I know that they will pass. Fear, grief, overwhelm, anger – none of them are sustainable in the long term and so they will all fade away eventually and you will find yourself in other emotional states that are less exhausting. Yes, they may cycle through you again and again, especially in times of stress or tragedy, but you can practice holding them with more mindfulness and awareness, watching them come, holding space for them for a moment, and then watching them leave. Your emotional state does not own you and you can allow whatever shows up to pass through you without becoming overly attached to it. 

3. Find outlets that help you release the emotions and the impacts of the trauma. If you need to scream, scream (perhaps in a place where you won’t alarm the neighbours). If you need to cry, cry. If your body feels shaky, let it shake. If you need to laugh until you cry, then do that. If you need to punch something, make sure it’s a pillow and not the face of someone you love. If you need to break something, find your least favourite mug and throw it against a cement wall. Emotions that threaten to overwhelm you need a healthy outlet so that you don’t hurt anyone (including yourself) with them. And trauma that is not physically released from your body has a greater chance of staying locked inside. Sometimes wild dance movements help. Sometimes swinging a hammer or using power tools helps. Sometimes making messy art helps. Sometimes just watching a sad movie and letting your tears flow helps. Emotions that get stuck inside of us will find less healthy ways of showing up later. 

4. Find stillness. As I mentioned above, intense emotional states aren’t sustainable, and worry and fretting are among those that we need to let go of when they’re ready to pass. It’s hard to let go of that kind of frenetic energy, though, if we stay in the frenetic space that feeds the worry. Step away from your computer for awhile. Stay off social media one day a week or turn it off at 7 p.m. Don’t check the news first thing when you wake up. Limit the number of conversations you engage in online, especially if there are some that cause you anxiety and discomfort. Unfollow people whose feeds are full of doom and gloom. Pick a comfortable chair in your home that is the no-electronics zone and leave your phone in another room every time you curl up in that chair. Or designate your backyard a no-tech area. Find the places that give you some measure of peace and visit them regularly. 

5. Lean into love. Even though we can’t spend as much time in the same physical spaces as the people we love, this is a time when we need connection and community more than ever. This is a time when we need to rely on each other and find the spaces where we can be authentic and vulnerable with people we trust. Lean into that. Reach out to your friends and host Zoom dates. Go for walks in the park together. Send a small gift to someone who’s special to you. Find a way to offer love and that love will come back to you in some way or another. Notice who’s in the most direct line of the oncoming train (i.e. who will be the first to be impacted by the disaster?) and find a way to support them or advocate for them. And if you need mental health support, call a help line or ask around to find a therapist or support group. You are not in this alone. Collectively, we have more capacity to weather derailed trains than we do alone.

6. Know that you are resilient. This too shall pass. You have survived hard things in the past and you will survive hard things in the future. And each hard thing you survive gives you additional resources to help you survive the next one. Trust that you have the strength and resilience to weather this storm. Trust that your emotional muscles will grow under the strain of this new weight. Trust that even those who lose limbs learn to dance again.

Perhaps next year, when we find our way through the rubble of the derailed trains, and we can touch each other again, we’ll lean on each other, we’ll hold up the most wounded, and we’ll do the dance of the wobbly yet resilient.  

If you want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself and/or others, check out my new book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership.

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