The First Rule of Survival: Be Here Now

Jenn,

I said in my last letter that it was the rhythms and practices that acted as stabilizers, slowed down my spiraling and allowed me to see my need for community. Forgive me as I get a little technical.  It’s the way I work. So, this is going to be a two-part letter, or else it will be too long as a single letter.  

There were many voices that acted as sages as I journeyed through this threshold, but none so much as Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss and Laurence Gonzales’ Surviving Survival.  

Wiman’s work gave words and permission to my apophatic experience.  I had to come to the place where I had the permission to just name what I was going through rather than deny it, and then actually accept it.  Wiman helped me do that.  

Gonzales’ writing painted a way forward.  His work did so by forcing me to come to the place where I was willing to embrace my own weakness, take responsibility for my new place, and using his interpretation of resilience theory create practices to move forward.  Surviving Survival is about resilience.  It is about moving forward or surviving the residual effects of physical and emotional trauma.  This seemed appropriate since I was showing moderate symptoms of PTSD and was diagnosed with high-functioning depression.  

Time for a metaphor: So imagine with me a hypothetical traumatic experience.  A plane crash.  For whatever reason, you survived the crash.  You went through the trauma of the actual crash, and you survived.  But now you find yourself in a new unfamiliar situation.  You have crashed over the mountains.  You are the only survivor.  You’ve never been to these mountains.  You have no food.  No water.  No guide.  According to Gonzales, the first step in the process of survival is believing it beyond panic, or as he calls, "perceive and believe".  We are often so quick to move into panic mode to escape and deny our new reality that we actually work against our own survival.  We do this in the name of “being positive”, “right confession”, or even fear, but the truth is, in order to move on from a traumatic experience, we have to be real with where we are.  We have to be here now.  This may be the first and most important step, and our culture of denial fights it every step of the way.  Then we have to accept our new environment.  Sure we can mourn the loss of what used to be, but that doesn’t make it come back.  We are where we are, and at some point, we have to decide to start there.  We have to be here now.  And this is usually the difference between survival and death.  Death is almost the sure result of someone who reacts out of panic, and survival is almost the sure result of someone who admits and owns their current situation, slows down, and moves with precision.  

Using the plane-crash metaphor, the one who usually ends up dead is the one who panics and takes off to find safety or apathetically does nothing.  Our panic tells us, based on our old mental maps, we can find our way out; but our panic has also blinded us from the reality that our new place is a place in which the old maps won’t work, thus leading us to a place of hopelessness and over exhaustion from failed attempts at escape.  If we want out, we have to first take the time to create new maps.  Our panicked self only wants to spend energy to get out immediately, it feels that taking the time to create new maps is time waisted.  But if we can slow down, our logical self will tell us, “while it would be nice to move on immediately, we have to have a map to do so, so we must create that map, or we will get lost and die.  We must admit we are lost."  

And being lost is our new home.

So, how do we do that?  Back to the plane crash metaphor.  You start with a point of singularity.  Say a tree.  The tree is your new home.  You name it “home”.  From that point, your job is to create a map by daily walking out something resemblant to concentric circles.  Each day you travel a little further from the circle before, until a new map is created within your mind.  You figure out how to get water within your new environment.  Where to find shelter.  What to eat.  While you would love to get out of the mountains, for now, they are your new neighborhood and you have to accept it as such.   The two things that make your survival possible is the creation of a map through ever expanding concentric circles and the acceptance of the new environment.  These two actions, one physical and the other emotional, will help stave off panic, create a new map (and new skills), and help you actually survive your new home within liminality.

Seriously.  In life, it is often some sort of traumatic experience that introduces us to the second half of life: 

Loss of a loved one. 

Loss of a marriage. 

Loss of a job.  

Loss of security. 

Loss of belief. 

These losses cause us to wake up and find ourselves in a world that we don’t know.  Which is what the second half of life is - new, unwanted, unknown territory.  So, we often panic and attempt to conjure up old maps (or ways of being) that worked in the old world, and when they no longer work, we typically become despondent or swim back for the old shore.  

In the realm of some sort of emotional trauma that lands us in a new, scary, unfamiliar, emotional, and/or geographical landscape, I believe it is the commitment to new practices, habits and rhythm creation that acts as the concentric circles in the plane-crash metaphor.  They assist us in creating our new emotional maps that allow us to not only survive, but thrive in our new landscape by connecting us to that environment.  They remove us from an unordered mind or a state of panic and ground us in the here and now.  

In fact, Gonzales says, “Hands force order on the mind.  The body controls the brain. What we do with the body is going to influence what goes on in the brain."  In other words, new practices, habits, and rhythms help us leave fear and depression behind (or at least manage them) and get on with discovering new life and thus living…

until then…Love ya’

Matthew