You haven’t been right. Something’s up, so you wait to see if things will pass but when they don’t and you still feel lousy, you go to your doctor and they draw lots of blood and send you home and suggest you take it easy for a while. For the vast majority of us, the call will come in a few days to let us know we’re fine, fighting a cold or low level virus that will surely resolve – maybe we need a few pills to manage symptoms in the meantime. But for others comes the overly bright voice on the other end of the phone asking you to come back “just to clarify” what’s going on.
Thus begins the roller coaster ride of medical uncertainty. Maybe you are given a drastic diagnosis, one with very serious ramifications – a diagnosis like cancer, heart disease or MS. You are told certain other tests might prove the diagnosis wrong, so you subject yourself to varying evaluations and procedures, hoping they will find out there really isn’t anything wrong with you, you’ve just been a little down coming out of a long, dark winter. You wait, read all you can about the possible diagnosis, scare yourself shitless and start the process of denial as your world begins to tip sideways. You convince yourself you actually feel fine. You get angry at the doctors because obviously they just want to operate on you to make lots of money. You try negotiation: If I’m well, “I’ll give up smoking for real this time, “I’ll stop swearing,” “I’ll finally quit the job I hate so much.” We grasp at hope and use it to filter out the things we don’t want to hear.
When the tests come back negative, we go up, up, up and feel euphoric and alive! When another test confirms the worst, we hurtle to new lows. In between, we have the gnawing fear, the background terror, the utter despair of wondering just how bad things really are and how much worse they’re going to get. We are trapped on a hellbound train that threatens at every turn to plunge us into total darkness. Worst of all is that no one can ride with us, all the seats on this caravan only fit one person. As much as friends or family want to be a part of this, there is no way they can ever understand just how overwhelming the ride can be. They, in fact, are on a roller coaster of their own, out of their minds with helplessness and worry over the prospect of losing you.
So how do we hold on? How do we stay, for lack of a better metaphor, on track, so we are not completely de-railed? Some say we should turn it over to a higher power but that is often easier said than done, especially if the higher power being named has never been a big part of your life. Some say we must learn to push negative thoughts out of the way and distract ourselves with positive affirmations, but again, if we’ve never had to do this before it is like holding a door closed against an insistent intruder. Our arms will get very tired, very quickly.
Others say we are not really broken at these times, but broken open – that this is when everything we’ve learned, both good and bad, will rush up to meet us, to test our character, to challenge us, to see us through. I’m not sure that bad things are necessarily good things, but I have learned that there are sometimes little gifts tucked inside the darkness of despair. Gifts of kindness, gifts of gratitude, gifts of love that we might otherwise not have seen. That is when the deep connections we have hopefully built over the course of our lifetime can sustain us – connections to people, animals, our spirit, our work and to nature.
I have found connecting to the natural world is always best for easing some of my fears; the older I get, the more miraculous it all seems to me. I am fascinated seeing how the vascular tissue of a leaf mimics our own capillary systems or how the branches of trees exist in concert with our own arteries. Then I consider, we breathe deep the vital oxygen these plants and trees make and circulate it throughout our system and in turn feed them with every breath we exhale. I look at the spiral on the tip of my finger and marvel over how this simple helical shape is replicated throughout the known universe, from the tip of my finger to the whorling of seashells to the coiling beauty of distant galaxies.
By simply going for a walk, I feel a communion with other living things that somehow comforts me, allowing me to see that the natural rhythms of life have a beauty all their own, even when old life expires so new life can begin. I become aware that I am a part of something so huge that my mind simply cannot wrap around what it fully means. In a paradoxical way, the smaller I realize I truly am in the overall scheme of things, the more connected I feel to the larger universe around me. It was the Persian poet Rumi who wrote, “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” This focus somehow slows the train, keeps the cars on the rails and for a time, gives me peace.