Last week sometime I was walking down a lively street in Queens with one of my favorite people, but I was barely there.
I had been stressing about a handful of looming problems, when an aggressive pigeon startled me from my funk. It jarred me lucid for just long enough to allow me to remember a peculiar, relevant fact about life:
Every problem I’ve ever had — every heart-twisting crisis, every fearsome responsibility, every breakdown of confidence or hope, everything I ever thought I couldn’t handle — was over. Except two or three things.
It’s always been like that. In my 31 years I’ve found myself periodically becoming consumed with some personal crisis surrounding my current job, relationship, financial situation or prospects. There have been a lot of those, and I was in the middle of one when the pigeon frightened me.
You know the kind. They take over the mind. Things seem to be flying off the rails, you feel sick with worry about how things will turn out, and you start to wish you were your cat, who only ever has to worry about whether he’d rather lay in the sun right now, or eat right now and sun himself later.
Some of these catastrophes dominated my mind for weeks of my life, some just made for an awful afternoon, a couple spoiled most of a few months.
I don’t know how many of these derailings there were exactly. Maybe a few hundred pretty bad ones, and a maybe thousand that only consumed me for a day or so. It’s a robust collection of awfulness, a lifetime’s-worth of catastrophes. If I’d documented them all with my Nikon the collection would make a dramatic photo album of personal tragedy. Award-winning. We all have one.
All of them, at whatever age they happened, came with the feeling that my life is now seriously wounded. Each one contained enough suffering on its own to darken my vision of my whole life, to make me wish I was someone else.
And that afternoon as I was trying desperately to enjoy walking down the street, in a place I love with a person I love, virtually none of them were bothering me one bit.
My awful summer of fruitless job-searching had worked itself out years ago. My disastrous statistics exam in college, which had shaken me to pieces at the time, did not enter my mind. Being ditched by a girl X years ago, a moment in which life itself seemed to be collapsing, didn’t seem problematic.
What was consuming me that day were three active worries on a heap of thousands of dead ones — an acute financial issue, uncertainty about a particular relationship, and the prospect of going back to the workforce after a four-month hiatus.
Worries writhe in the head like mutant plants, splitting into other worries, obscuring the light, choking wisdom. They germinate into a wall of negative thoughts, an imagined landscape of dire scenarios that makes you think that’s what your life is from now on. Dire and unworkable.
It’s amazing how good we think we are at predicting the future when we’re predicting a gloomy one. From within a catastrophe, the easy times seem to be over, at least for now, maybe forever. The bigger ones seem to be so poised to kill you that you forget that not one of them ever has, and that at any given time all but a few of them are dead.
The human mind, most of the time, is pretty childish. I want this. I want to get away from that. I don’t want to lose this. I am afraid that will happen.
We have flashes of wisdom, of restraint and acceptance. But mostly our minds are piloting our lives with very simple instructions and beliefs. Get more of what you want, get less of what you don’t want. Stuff I want is good, stuff I don’t want is bad.
Life gives us lots of what we don’t want. Maybe more of it than it does the other category. Worrisome developments descend on our consciousness as emotions — big, unweildy thoughts that take over parts of our body as they settle in. They tighten us at the solar plexus, around the mouth, in the eyelids. They can flush the skin, raise the body temperature, pull up the stomach.
The body responds to fearful thoughts as if it’s expecting physical danger. Wisdom seems to leave the room at this point, like experienced bargoers do when the younger patrons are starting to get rowdy and sloppy. And so the reactive part of the mind is left alone to assess things, which it only ever does with panic and shouting. It runs down the hall pulling alarms. Things are real bad! Oh God! This should never have happened!
Wisdom comes back when only you stop freaking out. It just can’t get to work on a panicked mind. Catastrophes push wisdom away when they descend on your life. The catastrophe, after all, isn’t a situation, it’s an emotional phenomenon. The same situation can yield two completely different experiences, depending whether you roll with the catastrophe response or not.
I have a hard time realizing it while I’m in the middle of one, but I need every little catastrophe I’ve had. The present moment is always the sum of everything that happened before now. Without every one of those catastrophes, I couldn’t be here. Each one looked like doom at the time, yet so few have any pull on my mind right now.
When looked at on the scale of your whole life, the typical problem is a solved one. Unresolved catastrophes are a rare exception when you consider how many there have been and how few have any meaning today.
It’s always been that way — every single disaster has inevitably given up its emotional hold, except that thin leading edge consisting of the two or three things that are really bothering you right now. And they’ll give way to something else soon too.
So maybe my issues-du-jour shouldn’t bother me that much, knowing that it’s not me but my problems themselves that are condemned. They’re doomed to be left behind like all their dead brothers.
Reacting to dilemmas with a sense of doom is highly conditioned for a lot of us though, so the trick is to recognize when it’s happening and remember that catastrophes are emotional states, not the situations themselves. That feeling of hitting a what I see as a roadblock usually makes me do all the things that make it worse: get angry, blame others, wish for deus ex machina to save me.
What I really should be doing is making sure I keep up the pace. I should walk into an unfolding catastrophe with the same sense of positive expectation as when I walk into a pleasant development. I’ve been doing this with smaller dilemmas and it’s amazing how it works. The dilemma itself — the uncertainty, the possibility of pain or cost, the scenario itself — doesn’t disappear right away, but its emotional status as a “problem” often vaporizes the moment I decide I’m not going to fret about it.
Before someone says it, yes Churchill make an overly famous remark about carrying yourself through ugly times: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” But it’s a little more than that. You have to keep going anyway, no matter how upset you get. The clock will make you do something eventually. What’s crucial, as you stroll through hell, is how you walk. Posture, speed, whether your eyes are on your shoes or on the horizon — this is what makes living disasters into dead ones fast.
On the other side of every catastrophe is the good part of life. This is a perpetual truth. Disasters all lead eventually to pleasures, new and wonderful people, and satisfied feelings about yourself, and so we might as well recognize that to walk into an unfolding catastrophe is ultimately the same as walking into the good times beyond it. Seizing up, wishing and blaming only swells and prolongs the emotional storm surrounding the situation, and the emotional part is the only reason problems are so painful.
You are always walking into the rest of life, no matter what you do, and after all those thousands of worry-sessions about making things go exactly right, it’s a person’s gait that determines his quality of life, not what he’s currently walking through.
Yes, every one of my disasters were necessary to get me here, and here is still a remarkably advantageous place, given all the world-ending disasters that have happened to me. I have the good things I have because of all those problems, not in spite of them. There are no real roadblocks except (maybe) death, and at any time the only thing to do is to go do the next thing.
That’s simple enough to understand, but it still leaves wide open the question of how we will walk into the rest of our lives — whether we’re tentative with our steps, or whether we refuse to step at all.
The doom emotion just doesn’t make sense. There is no real doom in everyday life. None of your catastrophes have ruined you. They have made you. If you’re like me, when you see things going wrong, you want to slow down the pace. You don’t want to move forward because you don’t want any more disaster.
But disasters are made of paper. You make a decision or two, then walk in to them like you would a harmless corner store, and soon they’re behind you, on the enormous pile of dead and harmless disasters that once had you worried sick.
The sky has fallen a thousand times already.
Photo by Aussiegal