Yesterday, I rose with the birds. I shared some photographs with friends, showered, and made some coffee. I packed my bags for a work road-trip and sent a message:
Me: Should be there by 3pm. Let me know if anything has changed!
Client: Have you left? Might not fly today, we’re worried I’ll get and give the virus to my grandniece. I might have to cancel your work. Her six-year-old grandniece, who has cancer.
I was flooded with emotion. My heart started beating faster. What am I supposed to do? I wondered. I had already committed to some other clients in the county I would travel to. I had already cancelled work for the next week, where I live. If I lost the money I was supposed to make with this client, I would not be able to pay rent next month.
It had already been a rougher week than normal. We are in heavy times right now, all of us. And at a personal level, exhaustion and anxiety have been in full effect this week. Which feelings was I allowed to feel? These are the moments of life in all of its complexity. Moments I am eerily intimate with.
The other night, I thought about my time in South Sudan. I remember on several occasions, wondering if I was allowed to laugh. With all the destruction and chaos and disease and insecurity and death and trauma (WAR) surrounding me, was it ok for me to laugh when something was funny?
Could anything be funny in such harrowing circumstances and times? Was I allowed to feel happy, ever? Could I smile? And how sad should I feel for each sad thing that happened? And what if I lost my ability to feel? What then? It has taken me years to unravel the experience, as best I can.
Back to the other morning. I wondered if it was possible to experience compassion fatigue in my own country. I had been there and done that in the heart of Africa. And I was a fool to think it wouldn’t happen. A foreign, post-conflict environment with ample suffering — show me one American, one human, who wouldn’t burn out after three years. I’d like to meet them.
But here at home? Was I experiencing it again? I care about my client with the six-year-old grandniece who has cancer. I care about people being afraid of heavy things happening in the world. I care about people, including myself, being healthy and whole and full of joy. I do. But things can feel overwhelming sometimes.
Yesterday, after the flood of emotion, I decided I needed to figure out what to do next, quickly, and feel later. I decided to keep doing the next thing, and keep my plans to travel, and work as much as I could, and hope for the best.
This morning, I visited my client. I walked her dog, then asked about her grandniece, and how she was doing. I saw the emotion in her eyes, and told her I was sorry such a terrible thing was happening to her family. And sorry such a scary thing was happening to the world that prevented her from being with them.
She insisted on paying me what she owed for work I will never do. She said we had both been through a lot in life, and we knew how to take care of each other. Another flood of emotion. This time, I let the emotions go, out through the eyes. Another type of overwhelm I’m intimate with.
Guilt for being taken care of when others are suffering — one of the most wretched feelings I know. I know it well, too. This was another experience I gained in South Sudan.
At the end of my time, after 33 months of living in a house I hated (where plenty of scary things happened), I moved into a brand new apartment. Three months of air-conditioning and constant electricity and WiFi, plus a gym to work out in and a swimming pool to swim in and a rooftop to watch sunrises and sunsets from.
A rooftop to look down on my neighbors from. Neighbors with mud-cement houses and goats and chickens. Neighbors who may never know the luxuries I was enjoying. Neighbors who, oddly enough, could be heard laughing and celebrating much of the time. Even as the war raged.
If I had my feelings fully about me at the time, I would have felt guilty for living the way I was while my neighbors lived the way they did. 33 months of guilt and chronic stress and trauma and other things, had left me pretty numb at that point. Living in that apartment may have saved me from physical death, actually. I was so worn down by then, I was bound to get myself in serious trouble.
But in times like these — times when everything is overwhelming and we can’t decide which feelings we’re allowed to feel — what do we do? Wondering if we’re able to laugh when things are sad, or allowing ourselves to be taken care of when others are suffering — these can be heavy burdens to bear.
Resilient people know how to feel pain and keep living. They are not being insensitive or aloof or inappropriately jovial if they laugh during a time of crisis. They are aware of what’s going on. They understand suffering and pain at a deep level. They know this won’t be the last time pain comes knocking, but they have learned how to keep going anyway.
Resilient people have figured out what helps them cope with the tragic side of life. They have learned to lean on healthy habits to help get them through hard times. Habits like focused breathing, physical activity, creating beautiful things, staying in real-life communication with loved ones, practicing gratitude for what is in life, rather than what could be. Laughing.
Resilient people always know life is short. They understand the power of the present moment, and they don’t take things for granted. They understand reality hurts sometimes, and they learn how to be a beacon of light in dark times.
I’ve know some incredibly resilient people in my life. People in faraway places and people right here at home. People like my widowed client whose heart is breaking, yet she carries on shining a light for others, all while taking care of herself — and her spunky dog — too. I want to be more like these people.
I want to become more and more resilient as the world puts more pressure on me to break. I want to bend with the mighty winds of suffering, like a thousand year-old tree, standing tall and strong, during and after the storm. Shedding tears and leaves through the process is necessary, but breaking doesn’t have to be.
The only things I can think of to do next are quite basic. Mundane, really. I know I can’t cure this disease, and I know I can’t save the world. What I can do now is focus on what’s inside me and in front of me.
I will buy some flowers and deliver them to my client in the morning. I will take care of myself. I will hug those close to me and be grateful we are alive now. I will allow myself to laugh when something is funny, and cry when I need to cry — even if my problems are different from *real* problems.
I will stop comparing pain. I will breathe my way to peace and awareness of the moment. I will dance to the music. I will find the joy I can keep writing through the madness.