“Let It Go!” More than a song title, the motto for our age

Girl with Balloon by Banksy for "Let It Go" blog post

How recently did a friend, family member, pastor or therapist advise you to “just let it go?”  It’s a phrase we hear often and suggests a strategic forgetting meant to clear our hearts and minds of purposeless thoughts, ruminations, obsessions, or the painful past.

In the old days, we might use the expressions “sweep things under the rug” or “bail out,” implying a passive escape from difficulties. But letting go is something different: an act of considered disengagement; a turning away from; a conscious erasure. It can mean anything from letting something alone by not interfering with it; letting a comment or disagreeable encounter pass; dropping an argument; leaving a relationship; putting an end to obsessive thoughts, or variations on any of these.

Why have we come to embrace the concept of “let it go?” One reason is that sensory overload has put us at risk. Our nervous systems are not adapted for and can’t reasonably respond to the daily and almost constant exposure to stressors. Medical science has warned for decades that stress makes us vulnerable to chronic disease. Infection, drought, and starvation affect large populations in the developing world, but in wealthy countries conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, adrenal fatigue, cancer, heart and autoimmune disease prevail. The evidence is not yet in on just how stress relates to these conditions, or how the emotional crises of worrying about a relationship might have different biological consequences than, say, living with famine. Not all stress results in the same afflictions, and some existential conditions such as living with natural disasters are not easily amenable to psychological intervention or techniques. However, the lucky among us can alter our internal and external environments enough to reduce the level of stress we experience.

Queen Else on Let It Go music for "Let It Go" blog postIt makes perfect sense that in our technologically advanced world, we have adopted the philosophy of letting go. Tellingly, in the Disney movie Frozen the song princess Elsa belts out with exactly that title has achieved massive popularity:

“Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand in the light of day
Let the storm rage on!
The cold never bothered me anyway.”

(From “Let It Go,” music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez)

The song is not just a catchy melody. It speaks to a wide audience of young girls and women hungry for images of female empowerment, self-acceptance, and resilience. Its message reaches beyond gender concerns. It celebrates the shedding/letting go of culturally defined roles and expresses the exhilaration of discovering one’s true self. Letting go in this sense is liberation from stereotypical norms, a revelation rather than an erasure.

Photo of Frank Hurley and Ernest Shackleton for "Let It Go" blog postBut wait! Letting it go hasn’t always been the model for handling difficult situations. Way back when, popular culture encouraged a stoic attitude exemplified by rugged individualism embodied by tough hombres. Legendary characters like Paul Bunyan or real figures like Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, or the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton depicted a heroic ideal. Their virtue lay in handling the unpredictable with a cool head and dispassionate heart. Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Gary Cooper and actors that resembled them reflected this mythic masculinity on screen.

American stoicism was not about letting it go, but rather about duking it out and winning. The idea was that character is built by a kind of gritty endurance, a soldiering on that meant one accepted what life offered, including the hardships and suffering. To be anything less was degrading, a basic weakness. The archetype was male and white, but tough dames like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford exhibited their own brand of true grit. Instead of “just let it go,” Americans embraced slogans like, “Buck up, cowboy.” Even in girls’ locker rooms posters declared: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

We now live in a different century. Not only have our expectations about the world altered, the planet itself and the societies on it are continually transforming. The rapidity of change we experience in our daily lives means that we face many more challenges to inner and outer stability. We live with a surfeit of stress. How do we cope? “Let it go” has become the motto for our times.

But letting go is not a process for sissies. It requires self-awareness, discernment, and the courage to face and acknowledge the difficulty at hand. Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist with an interest in meditation, neuroscience and the investigation of human emotions, offers some practical suggestions about how to “let go” on his helpful and informative website:

Monarch Butterfly sequence for "Let It Go" blog post“Step back from your situation, from whatever it is that you’re attached to, and try to hold it in a larger perspective. Get some distance from it, as if you’re sitting comfortably on a sunny mountain looking down on a valley that contains this thing you’ve been holding onto. Exhale and relax and listen to your heart: What’s it telling you about this attachment? Are the conditions truly present to have it come true? Is it worth its costs? Is it simply out of your hands, so that your own striving – however well-intended, skillful, and honorable – just can’t make it so? You get to decide whether it’s best to keep trying, or time to let it go. Be with these reflections – perhaps sitting quietly with a cup of tea, or in some place that is beautiful or sacred to you – and let their answers sink in.”

Neuroscientist Linda Graham’s book, Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, likewise addresses the brain’s ability to grow and change in response to experience. Moving from a negative to positive emotional state requires that we redirect our stress responses by consciously practicing ways to calm our over-stimulated brain. Dr. Graham draws on her twenty years of experience as a psychotherapist to offer a series of experiential exercises designed to build skills in “relational intelligence, somatic (body-based) intelligence, emotional intelligence, reflection and choosing options, and the deep wisdom of simply being.”

“Researchers have found that people who exhibit high degrees of response flexibility also exhibit high degrees of resilience. Flexibility in the neural circuitry of the prefrontal cortex allows them to vary their responses to life events depending on their judgment of what will work best now, not simply on what has worked before. Response flexibility is the essential neural platform from which we can choose to cope differently, more adaptively, and more resiliently. It is the neurobiological basis of resilience.”

Along similar lines, Dr. Richard Davidson, one of the world’s foremost researchers on brain plasticity, links the ability to let go of negative ideation as one of the key aspects of resilience. He identifies two parts of letting go: the physical and the mental and finds an interesting distinction in how Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach letting go:

“In CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) the emphasis is on changing negative or unhelpful beliefs, but in other approaches you don’t need to go so far. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, it’s enough to create this space in the way I’m describing here. In ACT the process is known as cognitive defusion.

Cognitive defusion is an aspect of acceptance, which just means letting go of internal struggle or resistance. This is acceptance in a positive sense, not just resignation – so for example, forgiveness is a kind of acceptance.”

Bust of Marcus Aurelius for "Let It Go" blog postLast, in researching this blog, I discovered a website called The Daily Stoic. Founded in Athens in the third century B.C., stoicism was a persuasive ancient Hellenistic philosophy whose most famous proponents were Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. One tenet of stoicism taught that self-control, reason, and fortitude could overcome destructive emotions. The Daily Stoic endeavors to make stoicism relevant to a modern audience and to serve “as a source of much-needed strength and stamina” during our difficult times. While modern stoicism may sound like the old “buck up” philosophy, it favors reliance on reason and self-control, which includes making choices (and letting go of unproductive attitudes) about how to attain a happier life.

To live in the twenty-first century is to live with a lot of noise, both inner and outer. Luckily, our minds are hospitable places that can grow and adapt to changing circumstances. But like all sentient beings, our physical resources are limited. When beset by the “too muchness” of life, we don’t have to choose between knuckling through or letting go. Knowledge is our friend, and flexibility may prove to be our most important skill.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Abiding with Grief: Five Things I Learned

 

Recently, after a prolonged and hellish ravaging by Alzheimer’s, my sister died. She was the last of my family of origin, my only sib, the single person on earth with whom I shared childhood memories. Witnessing her diminishment was frightening, tender, and humbling. Her death closed the final chapter on her pain and struggle and for all involved was a relief. Still, I expected after her funeral to take up temporary residency in The House of Grief. I’d been there before. With each family death and bereavement—a grandparent, parents, assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins, and the heart-wrenching passing of pets—I’d experienced mind-numbing, stomach-twisting, insomniac weeks. Each loss brought its own parcel of tears, days of dazed blankness, and as I look back on it now, a variety of physical ailments symbolic of my body’s way of processing strong emotions. My sister’s death, however, evoked a more crippling response, different from all my previous experiences. This led me to investigate my grief.

Much of the current research on grief question the landmark book by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Death and Dying published in 1969, and her later book based on the same model, On Grief and Grieving. These two books alerted clinicians and the public to what became known as the “stages of grief” theory.

Kübler-Ross posited that grief unrolls in five predictable stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Her research was anecdotal and compelling, a necessary first step to awakening the medical profession, including psychiatry, to the range of emotions of the bereaved and the need of patients and their families to have an honest discussion about death. If only our griefs would adhere to the tidy timeline set up by Kübler-Ross! Contrary to our wishes, her paradigm does not align with the wild and unpredictable process grief is.

Nor are the stages she lists exhaustive. A study conducted by Dr. Paul Maciejewski in 2007 found that yearning, not denial or sadness or anger, was the predominating feeling of the grief-stricken. Dr. Holly Prigerson, a colleague of Dr. Maciejewski at the Weill Cornell Medical Center, has been investigating “complicated grief,” mourning that continues after six months, the common time period of bereavement when symptoms often begin to lift. Those suffering from complicated grief experience unrelenting longing for the deceased and are often afflicted by intrusive, preoccupying thoughts and memories. Anti-depressants bring some relief as does cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which can help the bereaved adjust to their new identity and life.

But new studies suggest that intense feelings of grief do not necessarily become intractable or overwhelming, nor does depression inevitably follow loss. In his book, The Other Side of Sadness, George Bonnano, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, writes that some people are not debilitated by grief. According to his research, a majority of people respond to trauma and grief with resilience, that is, with the ability to maintain wellness in mind and body and to enjoy positive emotions. He suggests that not everyone needs a grief counselor or needs to discuss their sorrows in a group. This is a happy thought, backed up by Bonnano’s evidence that smiling and laughter, even when alone, can help an individual establish positive feelings.

The literature on grief has evolved over the decades, but one thing has remained a guiding principle: the deeper and more profound the relationship with the deceased, the more distressing the grief. This is true for animals as well. Anthropologist Barbara J. King has documented the lamentations of elephants, which have been known to keen over their beloveds and exhibit “some of the same visible responses to death… in their emotional distress” as humans do. The criteria for grief in animals even looks similar to grief in humans. “When an animal dies, the survivor alters his or her normal behavioral nature, perhaps reducing the time devoted to eating and sleeping, adopting a body posture or facial expression indicative of depression or agitation or failure to thrive.” (See Kate Wong’s wonderful 2013 article in Scientific American, “How to Identify Grief in Animals”)

The word “grief” comes from the old French “grever” meaning to burden, oppress, afflict. How do we unburden ourselves from our sorrows? In his outstanding book Unattended Sorrow, the poet and teacher, Stephen Levine, known for bringing the practice of Theravada Buddhism to Westerners, writes: “How we approach our not knowing what comes next is what gives meaning to our lives…Then, what may have seem like ‘meaningless loss,’ though it does not hurt any less, often leads to meaningful change, which, like every evolutionary leap, must cross seemingly uncrossable chasms.”

Painting of Bashō for grief post

In a chapter called, “Softening The Belly of Sorrow,” Levine reminds us that we often store fear and anger and sorrow in our guts, the belly being a receptacle, the place we store pains and disappointments we consciously ignore. One healing practice he advises is simply to sit quietly and focus attention on the rising and falling of our abdomens, softening the belly with mercy and compassion for ourselves and the sorrows we carry. Each inhalation and exhalation advances our letting go of distress while making room for a feeling of peace.

In my own experience, grief is not a small and boundaried domain, but a vast and mostly unexplored territory haunted by ghosts and memories. It is a place we pass through and become transformed. In this sense, grief shows its creative potential by acting as a catalyst for discovering and developing resilience and a greater capacity to adapt to stress. Levine says it this way: “Though we may have been told we are and must be a noun, in truth we are a restless verb, a process in process, born into tragedy and grace with unimagined potential.”

We share with other sentient beings the experience of suffering impermanence and loss. Our hearts break over and over, and yet we survive. The master poet Bashō writes with wise knowing of the persistent mystery of death and the transience of all things.

The cry of the cicada
Gives no sign
That presently it will die.

(translated from the Japanese by William George Ashton)
Five Things I Learned about Grief

  1. We don’t all follow the Kübler-Ross model of five stages of grief.
  2. Grief can be complicated and include unrelenting longing for the deceased for months.
  3. Some people recover quickly from grief. Its duration is not predictable.
  4. Grief is not just a human emotion. We share grieving with fellow animals.
  5. The process of trying to find meaning in what seems a meaningless loss can be transformative.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Four Principles of Survival My Characters Taught Me

The gate at Auschwitz -- for Survival post
The gate at Auschwitz (“Work Sets You Free”)

 

As many of you know, I was recently honored to receive an invitation from Psychology Today to join their impressive roster of bloggers. I’ll be cross-posting here what I blog there, so regular visitors here won’t miss anything. But if you have any comments on my blogs that you think the Psychology Today community would appreciate, do stop by and share your thoughts. Here’s the link. Below is the entry I posted there on April 17, 2016.

A story has haunted me from the moment I read it. It haunts me still. It’s a true story set in a death camp: March 1945, and the German forces are on the run. An inmate tells a young psychiatrist he has had an auspicious dream: a voice promises to answer any question the man asks. The man wants to know when the camp will be liberated. The voice gives him a specific date, March 30.

Dr. Viktor Frankl -- for Survival post
Dr. Viktor Frankl

The night before the prophesied liberation no Allied armies appear, and the man falls ill. The next day he is delirious, and the following day the man dies of a disease his body has resisted throughout his years of imprisonment. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the book in which this story appears, Viktor Frankl writes: “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.” Speaking of his comrade, Frankl explains, “His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness…”

Even as a youngster I knew that terrible things happened to people. I yearned to know how these people survived. This was at a time when Hollywoodized battles from World War II played nightly on the TV, the days of “duck and cover” and Sputnik. Paranoia was in the air.

Nothing would have alerted an outsider to my unconscious data-gathering, (well, maybe the perpetual furrow between my brows), but I was like a lot of kids who seem normal, (that shudder-inducing word that conjures its opposite, abnormal). I can’t say how young I was when I began taking notes on the subtle and not-so-subtle variants of suffering. Decades would pass before I realized that this is the proclivity of the novelist, observer and recorder of human miseries.

I create characters. My characters have a will and destiny of their own. They come from me, but are not me. They are separate entities that dwell in a less egocentric part of my psyche. As such, they often surprise me with their wisdom.

Martin Buber -- for Survival post
Martin Buber

And so, unbeknownst to me while I was writing it, The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, has at its thematic core my childhood inquiry about resilience. How do we survive the afflictions that besiege us? Martin Buber wrote: “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable.” The word embraceable, with its fleshy emotive overtones, reveals something about Buber’s philosophical stance. For him, all life was encounter, a meeting between I and Thou. “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” he wrote, and I would add, “all journeys offer secret lessons and meaning to be mined after the journey is complete.” This seems to me the heart of hope. Self-awareness requires hindsight, but hope is forward-looking.

Through what I call a writer’s hindsight learning—what the writer doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book—I’ve distilled four principles derived from the characters in The Conditions of Love, each of whom has a talent for surviving.

  1. Keep your heart open.

Bitterness has a tangy sweetness, as does resentment and revenge. They shine brightly with allure but their pleasures are brief. Keeping one’s heart open sounds treacly, but it’s a kick-ass practice that requires rigorous faith in what is unseen and rich with possibility.

  1. Recognize the absurd in your situation.

Even under monstrous circumstances, or dreadful circumstances when mind, body and spirit have begun to wither and love has gone to hell, humor may rise up to break through the armor of fear or despair. In its bleakest, blackest form, humor can be a life-saving way of acting out.

  3Confide in a friend: animal, mineral, vegetable.

We need the Other. We need some one or some thing to listen and bear witness. We’re pack animals and suffer more in isolation.

  1. Trust your creative instincts.

I love that Mern, the mother in my first novel, a single working-class woman raising a daughter in the Fifties, kept herself sane (well, sort of sane), by constantly changing her hairstyle and looks to mimic famous movies stars. Maybe our most outrageous instincts offer the most original boost to our resilience.

Whether we are storytellers or not, the things that obsess, fascinate, and concern us deserve our attention. They are, I believe, clues to our deepest longings that wish to become known. The sorrowful story of the camp prisoner who succumbed to typhus when his dream of liberation proved false could be our story if we lose hope. Hope is the jewel in the crown.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience and What I Learn from My Characters

It may not surprise readers of fiction that fiction writers have a very intimate relationship with our characters. We hear their voices waking and sleeping. Their stories live in us, they become family, that is, family we choose. Or perhaps I should say, family that chooses us. When I talk about my characters to a new audience, it’s almost as if I am introducing family members to strangers.

My characters reveal their stories to me, but not all at once and not in any linear way.  And not surprisingly, the complications that arise in their lives echo subjects I’m drawn to. One subject that has concerned me for some time I call “Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience.”

Gala Eluard by Max Ernst 1924One of the threads in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love, is emotional resiliency, what qualities enable us to flourish despite bad beginnings. I didn’t realize I was writing about this subject until after I finished the book. I call these post-publication revelationsWriter’s Hindsight Learning.” It’s what the author doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book! What I mean is that when I’m engaged in the discovery aspect of writing, moving the story forward scene by scene and trying to be a good listener to my characters, I’m not in an analytic mode. For me, writing is a process of discovery. The themes pick me. This might sound counter-intuitive, even counter-productive, but it isn’t. It’s about trusting your unconscious mind to lead you where you need to go. That means I don’t outline or write out a plot before I begin. It means risking being in the unknown. It means suffering the woes of creative vulnerability. But I know no other way to get to the deeper layers of a story, to the story INSIDE the story.

In fiction as in life, nothing destabilizes the identity of a young person as profoundly as turmoil in the home. I don’t mean this in any judgmental way. Quite the opposite. As a writer, I’m compelled to examine and speak the truth about the light and darkness inherent in human beings—the guilt, the sorrow, the joy, the indiscretions, the desire for freedom, the desire to survive no matter what.

By destabilizing one’s identity I mean the confused and painful experience of not knowing who one is or where one belongs. It’s the feeling of rupture from the familiar and stable structures of one’s life. These can be existential crises that set us on a journey to find out who we are.  We ask ourselves, “if this and this and this are no longer true in my life, who am I now?”

“You are not going to use me an an excuse again.” James Dean as Jim Stark arguing with his parents (Ann Doran and Jim Backus) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
This dilemma—of finding one’s true self against the background of loss and impermanence—is at the core of The Conditions of Love, and now I see it shaping my second novel, a work in progress called Digging to China.

In both my novels, the young protagonists find themselves in home environments that are about to be disrupted. Their mothers are going through big changes. Their fathers are either absent, (Eunice in The Conditions of Love), or about to be left behind (Reenie in Digging to China). In his book, The Child, the psychologist Erich Neumann wrote: “Once we appreciate the positive significance of the child’s total dependency on the primal relationship, we cannot be surprised by the catastrophic effects that ensue when that relationship is disturbed or destroyed.”

1721mandalajungSomething Carl Jung once wrote has always haunted me and in some way has been an impetus for my work.

“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents (and ancestors too, for we are dealing here with the age-old psychological phenomenon of original sin) have not lived.” —Carl Jung, Introduction to The Inner World of Childhood by Frances G. Wickes (1927)

As a writer, I’m very interested in the entangled and entangling relationship between parents and children. In both my novels, the mothers are the major destabilizers in their daughter’s lives, while their fathers are absent and idealized. The unfulfilled desires of the mothers affect their daughters. These desires are either thwarted or encouraged by the decades they live in.

In The Conditions of Love, Eunice’s mother, Mern, has a craving to be a movie star. Hollywood and what it represented in the Fifties is quite different from the Hollywood of today. It’s hard for us to imagine how significant movies were in the Fifties. Movies stars were these gigantic, dazzling national icons. Everyone knew who Marilyn or Bogey was. So, we have a mother who yearns for a richer and more exciting life, and a child who yearns for a normal family.

marilyn monroe handprintsBut I have sympathy for Mern and hope readers will too. Her creativity is stifled. The novel is set in the Fifties before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, before the birth control pill, and women’s lib. Mern IS over the top, but what can she aspire to? She’s trapped in her single mother, working class life. To be discovered as a starlet was one big dream for a lot of American women at that time. Of course this situation is horrible for her daughter. Indeed, a set up for calamity.

In Digging to China, Reenie’s mother Nate is caught up in the political turbulence of the late Sixties. The novel begins one week after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in June I968. In the course of the novel, Nate becomes radicalized and an activist for social justice. In Digging To China, specific political events precipitate internal transformation. Reenie becomes caught up in the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, and like Eunice, is launched on a journey of self-discovery.

Here is the opening of Digging to China. Reenie is listening to her parents fight in the room next door. You’ll hear how her imagination serves her in providing a sense of magic and wonder that leads to empowerment as she plots how to escape her distress.

Maplewood, New Jersey

May, 1968

Cages

 

They are at it again in the bedroom next to hers. Slippers thrown across the room, her mother’s scorched voice exploding in disgust. Her father commanding Control yourself, Nathalie. Reenie waits in the void of their aggrieved voices, ear to gap, the silence, and imagines her father smoking by the window, mother tense at the edge of the bed, cigarette butts burning to ash in the big glass ashtray. Her mother is Jewish and unhappy. (No one but Reenie notices this association, what she thinks of as her mother’s Jewish strangeness, the vague smile that twists into anger, the constant argument in her eyes.) Temperamental. Stubborn. Infuriating. Words her father labels her mother to be avoided at all costs, though Reenie is nothing like the brave and beautiful Nathalie. Nothing at all.

 

She should be used to this live rage scattershot in the night, but its randomness (her mother mutely seething at dinner, her father preoccupied but polite, cheerful even) undoes her, the violence chipping away at her confidence. Now she sits up in bed, hands clammy, heart sinking in a sea of blood and plugs her ears, Row row row your boat useless against the parental gale. Wakeful, she can’t not listen: her survival depends on it.

I want my fictional worlds to accurately convey the paradoxes, confusions, and moral dilemmas of human beings. Novels give us the experience of being alive in another person’s skin. How would we know about worlds we could never enter otherwise without our Toni Morrison, our Tim O’Brien, or Khaled Hosseini. Novels are direct avenues to compassion, something our world sorely needs to cultivate these days. And I have to say, writing my characters has taught me so much about risk, survival and resiliency. This is the great mystery of being a writer. We are transformed by what we write.

Varo_Armonia Continue reading…



On Writing, Climbing, and Resilience

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-female-climber-rapelling-off-cliff-image28558900A number of years ago, I did something I thought I’d never do: I scaled a forty-foot inflatable climbing tower, jumped into a net, and was belayed down to earth. How did this happen? I was with my daughters, one of whom was on the Outward Bound team that had set up the towers on a cross-country bike tour to raise awareness for girls Outward Bound expeditions. We were in Chicago’s Waveland Park, and I was standing around watching teen girls grab the rubber handholds and scramble up the towers like monkeys.

A curious thing happened. As I observed these limber young women, I suddenly felt my own body get juiced. Inside my head a voice was prompting me to go for it. You can do this, Dale. Never before had I been propelled to take this kind of physical risk. And heights? I don’t even like to look down from high-rise windows! Then how to explain what came next? I turned to my astonished husband and said I am doing this! (Spoiler: climbing that tower was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and it sure helped to have a squadron of my daughters’ friends yelling, “Dale rocks!”)

Anatomy of an Angel Damien Hirst IMG_7213Every angel is terrifying. I find myself quoting this line from Rilke’s Second Duino Elegy often because it clarifies so many situations. It seems that when we come face to face with the magnitude of who we are and the vast possibilities inherent in our lives, we often retreat in fear. But that breezy summer day I latched my harness and donned a helmet, I wasn’t thinking about angels, symbolic or otherwise. I was focused on which footholds to place my feet and how far to extend my arms. I wasn’t looking up at the clouds or down at the ground. Earth and sky had dissolved. What existed was my heartbeat, the burn in my calves, my breath in gulps.

After the climb, my daughter Jessica, who with her partner, Troy Gosz, now runs an amazing non-profit program called FLYY* which serves youth-at-risk through wilderness programs, explained that the towers are used as educational tools to teach confidence and climbing skills, but also provide a concrete, physical metaphor for how we face life’s challenges.

Climbers who try to race to the top of the towers often handle their fears the same way, rushing through difficult situations to get them over with as quickly as possible. Other climbers start slowly and cautiously, but speed up at the end gaining confidence as they go, while yet others begin energetically and poop out at the end because they haven’t paced themselves and have run out of steam. That’s what happened to me. A few feet from the summit, my strength failed. Arms and legs splayed against a swaying rubber cylinder, for several long minutes I could move neither up or down and so hugged that blasted tower with everything in me and prayed I wouldn’t fall off.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-rock-climbing-image24416860During the pause, something shifted. My mind refocused, veering away from fear toward the shouts of encouragement from below. Excuse the cliché but soon onward and upward I went, one step up at a time, until, voila! miraculously I’d made it, panting but victorious. At that moment, I couldn’t have guessed how frequently I’d return to my climbing experience as a touchstone when I’ve needed to unfreeze from fear. Here I’m thinking of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous aphorism: You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Writing a novel is more like scaling Mt. Everest than climbing a rubber tower: bravery, resilience, and unshakable determination are required. How many times did I despair that I would never finish The Conditions of Love, or if I did, never sell it. How often did my self-confidence flag? Doubt is one of the Five Hindrances to enlightenment in Buddhist thought and I can see why: doubt is a contagion of the mind that infects the creative spirit, an energetic equivalent of a mind on strike. While writing my novel, when self-doubt buckled my knees, I’d pull my climbing achievement out of my back pocket and remind myself that without practice and a strong inclination to vertigo, I’d climbed a forty-foot tower. I had done the thing I thought I couldn’t do. I could also write a book.

doubt6aI don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish. I don’t believe we can do anything we set our minds to. Accepting one’s limitations seems paramount to maturity. But… but…especially when it comes to creative work, for most of us discouragement, doubt, and stasis plague the process. But – what if that’s not a bad thing? What if, when we feel stuck, we think of it as a pause rather than an end stop, a reminder to see how far we’ve come? What if we take some deep breaths, push away the demons and attune to the encouraging voices? Hand over hand, foothold after foothold, ever so slowly if need be, we climb to the summit.

Afterclimb

*FLYY is a community-based non-profit that offers wilderness expeditions, intensive parent/guardian skills and support groups, and ongoing community-based aftercare for teens and families. FLYY serves as a catalyst and resource for youth and families to transform their outlook, their capacities, and their contributions to others. For more information, you can visit their website at www.flyyexpeditions.org.