To Feel The Chill

It suffices, perhaps, to say that this has been a dark time.

A time of hope transmuted into fear, a time of disbelief, a time of anger, a time of labor, a time of love, a time of mute horror limned by swastikas and flaming crosses in the night.

Lately I find myself drifting through the days scarcely recognizing the world I seem to live in–a place where love of money and the will to power seem to trump all other notional virtues, where form and style and subterfuge beat substance every day. Amid all the promises broken and grimmer promises made, it’s hard not to wonder what rough beast, as the poem says, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born. So much of “Second Coming” seems prescient today.

There’s been a sense that it is time to man the barricades, time to fill the streets, time to fill every Congressional voicemail box, time to place our bodies on the line to protect those in danger, time to gather nails and hammers and steel ourselves to rebuild every last thing that gets torn down. That this is a moment when, as a nation, we are going to decide who and what we are, and that we cannot–must not–be found unequal to the task.

I share that sense. But a different thought keeps nipping at my heels.

As I’ve been making calls, writing letters, and trying to find a way to keep moving and acting through the despair, I’ve been musing about how much our society shies away from the experience of discomfort and suffering. I’ve heard lots of friends say “we can’t waste time thinking about what happened; we’ve got to keep moving”. We do our best to focus on what needs to be, not on what is. We work hard to avoid having to feel, especially when the feeling that’s waiting is despair.

So we take a painkiller, we turn up the heat, we try to focus on the positive, we tell ourselves that it’s all part of God’s plan, and we do our best to transform our experience and recast it in a different light. We try not to wallow, and we strive not to dwell.

It’s not working for me. The abyss remains, and I remain conscious of it. It haunts the dark corners of the day, always ready to ambush the unguarded mind. Perhaps you’re feeling this way too.

I’ve been trying something new. Tonight, I lit a single candle, turned off the heat, removed my socks and sweater, and sat on the floor gazing into the flame. As the room cooled and twilight stretched into full dark, I noticed the way my body began to shiver and then shake.  I tried to feel more intensely, rather than less. When my thoughts drifted toward rights and democracy, toward safety and freedom, toward fear and anger, toward fascism, and away again, I did my best to follow closely, not trying to redirect.

For perhaps an hour or two, I did my best to live with the panic, to feel the chill of winter in my bones and in my soul.

It’s awful, feeling this scared. I’m terrified about the safety of many, many people I love–all of whom stand to be hurt both by our new president’s policies and by the ugly spirit of hatred he’s gleefully unleashed. I often catch myself worrying that, if I really let myself think about what’s happening, I’d be swept away, unable to function anymore, a chip borne along by an unrelenting torrent. So I’ve tried to distract myself, to “keep my eye on the ball”, to keep showing up for things that matter, and to avoid dwelling on the abyss.

Yet it remains.

I’ve noticed that the act of trying to avoid “going there”, of distracting myself from really thinking about how bad things are, takes a lot of work. It uses a lot of mental energy. I should say that it wastes a lot of mental energy, since the abyss remains and I remain conscious of it. And that waste of energy saps resolve and undermines effort until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the best lack all conviction–while the worst remain full of passionate intensity. That’s a loss we can ill afford.

So, I’m trying something new: seeing whether, in a darkened room lit by a single flame, I might be able to face what scares me and draw strength for fighting back.

So far, it seems to be working. After an hour of mild physical discomfort and serious anguish, I found my mind quieting down and turning, more calmly, toward doing what needs to be done. That’s a more productive headspace for me. Maybe for you, too.


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