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You Can Get There From Here

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Kindergarten was only a half-day, so I spent a lot of that year at a babysitter’s house. She had two children, both older than me. One day, the son had a big white cast covered in signatures, and explained that he had broken his arm.

At the time I thought having a broken arm meant it had been broken off, like a tree branch. Casts held the arm in place while it grew back together.

I asked how much it hurt.

“A lot.

“Did you cry?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Does it hurt now?”

“No, it’s just itchy.”

“When did it stop hurting?”

“I don’t remember.”

The sequence of events implied by his account blew my little mind. This guy fell off a jungle gym, looked around, and discovered his broken-off arm lying on the ground next to him. Then an ambulance came, and a team of doctors stuck it back on and encased it in plaster. It must have been a day of the purest pain and sadness, yet at some apparently forgettable moment, the horror went away, and now he’s joking around and it’s a normal day again.

I was then, and am still, fascinated by the way in which two incompatible experiences are still connected by time. You could be sad and despairing on a Monday morning, and be laughing that afternoon. In a matter of hours, the awfulness – real as it was – has somehow evaporated and been replaced by an entirely different experience.

This magic seemed to occur on every scale. I couldn’t get over the fact that Neil Armstrong had somehow gone from being an actual baby in diapers to physically walking on the moon’s surface. This change could only have transpired through a sequence of ordinary moments – crying episodes, feedings, math assignments, life lessons on the playground, conversations in kitchens, awkward dates, cigarette breaks, walks to the corner store, encounters with inky 1950s textbooks, and a million other mundane occurrences, each one slightly changing what it felt like to be him, until what it felt like to be him was the feeling of walking on the freaking moon.

There was no divine intervention making this so, no Hollywood-style montage obscuring the journey from feeling A to feeling Z. Only the strange, all-powerful transmutation of one moment’s experience to that of another, and another, and another.

In this sense, time functions as a kind of true alchemy — it can dissolve any experience, no matter how permanent it seems as it’s happening, and replace it with another. It can turn lead into gold.

It helps to remember this transmuting effect when you’re experiencing something difficult. Unbelievably, all the pain you’ve ever experienced is already gone, except for what’s present now. Even the worst physical or emotional sensations do transmute, with time, into sunny moments in the backyard in which nothing seems to be wrong.

(You can even watch this transmutation occur in real time, a skill we call mindfulness. With practice, you can see pain and pleasure appearing and disappearing, mote by mote, and appreciate the feeling of impermanence itself.)

Naturally, this perspective is hardest to remember precisely when it’s most helpful — when you’re at the bottom of the jungle gym with a broken arm. Bad times seem permanent when they’re happening, and I suppose that’s a large part of what makes them bad — the exaggerated sense of permanence they seem to have when looked at from the inside. It really seems like there’s no path from this bad place to any good place.

Notice how the darkness not only obscures your vision in the here and now, but convinces you that there’s no light over there either. We tend to react to each new dark spot as though it’s a cul-de-sac, slowing way down so as not to bang our shins on anything. Yet the road continues, as we invariably discover, and passes into daylight again.  

Residents of Maine are known for an adorable saying, given in response to a request for directions to a far-off place: “Oh, you can’t get there from here.

Of course, you can get from any part of Maine to any other, or for that matter to Los Cabos or even the Moon. But we know what they mean: I can’t see the route in my mind, so I don’t know what to tell you.  

Despair is a sense of “I can’t get there from here.” This feeling of being cut off from all viable paths is a natural response to having entered a new dark patch, but it’s an optical illusion created by low light conditions.

You can get there from here. “Here” is always a fine starting place — in fact, there’s nowhere else to get anywhere from.

***

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Nata August 20, 2020 at 2:41 am

I love your last sentence!

Mona Tellier August 20, 2020 at 3:40 am

This essay is a beautiful and gentle gesture of support in these tricky times.

Fiona August 20, 2020 at 5:06 am

WOW, what an awesome post. I love the idea of feeling like “what it felt like to be him was the feeling of walking on the freaking moon” – yes, its about feeling…
And the definition of despair hit home… so true :-) definitely worth remembering its an optical illusion. Another great image to hold.
Thank you for (all) your inspiring posts.

David Cain August 20, 2020 at 10:31 am

We don’t usually think of life as a condition of ever-changing feelings and sensations, but that’s essentially what it is. Our thoughts about our lives are the map, but all the territory is about how life feels in the exact moment you’re in. There’s no other contact we have with life.

Julie Mix August 20, 2020 at 5:24 am

David, thank you so much for this. It truly gives me hope. I’ve been feeling a sad despair at the state of the world lately and this explanation/reminder is just what a lot of us can use right now.

David Cain August 20, 2020 at 10:33 am

I try to reflect on other dark times, both global and personal. I can’t imagine what living through a world war would be like, and what it would have looked like from the inside. There are also countless stories of people living through health problems, addiction, financial ruin and much more. The impermanence is more obvious when you look at it from the outside, because you’re free of the distorting effect of the pain and difficulty. But you can still recognize it even from the inside.

Catrina August 20, 2020 at 6:23 am

Fantastic.
I need to save this when someone needs encouragement. Or when I need it myself. So good.

Stefano August 20, 2020 at 6:56 am

Your post came in the right moment of my life, I am 44 and going through a dark period: I am stuck at working dull, loveless jobs in restaurants, while I long for a meaningful job, helping others, doing something with passion and love, not just for the money. I feel like I am in a cul-de-sac.

David Cain August 20, 2020 at 10:35 am

I know the feeling and I hope this perspective is helpful. There is light elsewhere on the path, and the path is really really long.

Rodrigo Borba August 20, 2020 at 7:36 am

The way you put this perspective… Oh my god, you’re a brilliant writer, David!

Shane MCLEAN August 20, 2020 at 7:39 am

You have a unique insight to being a human. Love the story you told at the beginning to make your point. Great work mate

Betsy August 20, 2020 at 7:52 am

David, you fill my sail with wind and then you blow. me. away. Every time. Each post of yours I read feels like something I really needed to hear, but didn’t know it until I finished reading. Thanks for reminding me that everything will change eventually. And as my father used to say, “Everything always looks better in the morning.”

David Cain August 20, 2020 at 10:38 am

Thanks Betsy (and also Rodrigo and Shane). I have been doing this forever and I never really know if I’ve got my point across or not unless people say so. I hope this perspective helps you navigate from here, wherever here is for you.

Cultivating More Happiness August 20, 2020 at 8:12 am

A beautiful reflection on impermanence! This is a particularly heartbreaking time in the San Francisco area with wildfires burning everywhere amidst this ongoing pandemic. I really feel for all the people who have had to evacuate their homes during already difficult circumstances. I’ve been thinking about how we’ll look back on this time and that helps create from space what we we are going through, and a reminder that this too shall pass.

David Cain August 20, 2020 at 10:46 am

Thanks Priya. There’s a saying, “No situation is so bad that it can’t be made worse” and while that’s really grim, it is true. Even when you’re dealing with something that seems impossible to get through, it doesn’t prevent something else from happening on top of that. And people very often get through all of it back to sunny moments in the yard. We are incredibly resilient.

Johanna Baynard August 20, 2020 at 8:31 am

Perfect, thank you, well done. It’s an important reminder that life moves on, past this moment. The timing is so important as we Americans face the anxiety of this election.

Richard August 20, 2020 at 8:39 am

Thank you, David. The timing of this post couldn’t have been better for me. The isolation of sheltering in place is very difficult. I am 78 and live alone. Have no immediate family. Need to socialize and work and am cut off from these things now. Your column filled me with hope and a realistic perspective. We rise to the top of the wave, we sink to the trough, while the untroubled peace of the ocean holds us up. Thanks again.

David Cain August 20, 2020 at 10:53 am

I’m glad to hear you find it both hopeful and realistic. Sometimes it’s our despair that is unrealistic — it feels like it’s permanent, and it really isn’t. And that’s not true just in the sense that life will feel generally different later, but on a moment to moment level the actual feelings that make up life are changing.

devo August 20, 2020 at 8:50 am

hi david,
where is “here”?

David Cain August 20, 2020 at 10:53 am

The present moment

Bryce August 20, 2020 at 8:51 am

Important to remember that time will also turn gold to lead.

David Cain August 20, 2020 at 11:03 am

Yes, absolutely. But that too is not permanent of course. This post is focused on the impermanence of difficulty and darkness, because unlike happiness and light, it comes with that distorting effect that exaggerates its permanence and often causes us to prolong our suffering.

I should do a post on working with the impermanence of pleasant states though, because that come with its own challenges and insights to be had. Clinging to good feelings when they are ending, or even might end, can cause needless suffering too. If you can picture the sinking feeling of realizing your ice cream cone is coming to an end, you know the ache of clinging.

The ultimate solution is to recognize impermanence it the most granular state possible, which is the moment-to-moment fluctuations in physical and mental experience. That’s what serious mindfulness practice is all about.

Derrick August 20, 2020 at 10:49 am

Brilliantly said!! I try to practice “present moment awareness” all the time. This post came to me at the perfect time for a reminder. Thanks!!

David Cain August 20, 2020 at 11:05 am

Real present-moment awareness is fascinating, because you’re looking too closely at the moment itself (in terms of feelings and sensations) to suffer from the story-level despair of “Life is terrible” / “Things will never improve.”

This is a more accurate view of life, because it really consists of nothing but present-moment experience. Developing some mindfulness skills allows you to sustain your attention to life at this level, to an increasing degree. As the skills improve, the suffering shrinks, even if pain does not.

Tara C August 20, 2020 at 11:51 am

Love this post. I am pondering impermanence, clinging/aversion and equanimity as I deal with selling my current home and moving cross country into the unknown. The way I reassure myself is I say, « This time next year, it will all be a memory. ». I can be happy anywhere as long as my mind is stable and calm. My meditation practice is helping me a lot.

David Cain August 21, 2020 at 10:15 am

Meditation is the ultimate method for adjusting to this reality of impermanence. You’re always returning to what’s actually here, practicing allowing it as it is, because it can’t be any other way in the moment that you observe it. It is such a relief when you start to see impermanence unfolding in real-time. Even a really persistent, difficult period of life is made of quickly-fluctuating emotional and physical sensations, all of them bearable.

Rob Thilo August 20, 2020 at 12:12 pm

David, Another great post! Your progression of creating your path is inspiring. Mindfulness is easy, REMEMBERING mindfulness is challenging. Hanging on? Letting go? To what? What else? Repetition is the “medicine”! Bowing in gratitude for your writings. Peace, Rob

David Cain August 21, 2020 at 10:39 am

Hi Rob. Over the past few years I’ve reconfigured the way I think and talk about mindfulness. Rather than something you’re trying to sustain for indefinite periods (and ultimately perpetually) — which is extremely challenging — it’s an easy-to-learn skill you do for 3-5 seconds at a time. The challenge then is simply habituating yourself to doing it on more and more occasions, including 3-5 seconds after the last time you did it. That way it can become intuitive enough that remembering just happens.

Timothy August 20, 2020 at 12:32 pm

One of my favorite quotes for tough times is apocryphal but attributed to Winston Churchill, “if you are going through hell, keep going”

Luigi Winter August 20, 2020 at 12:35 pm

Aquí, es el punto de partida

Brian Storey August 20, 2020 at 12:41 pm

That’s a profound piece. Thanks for that David.

Linda Myers August 20, 2020 at 2:59 pm

Minute by minute. And when I am future tripping, I forget.

Paula August 20, 2020 at 5:20 pm

David, your blog posts always resonate, but this one did especially. In these dark and uncertain times (well, all times are uncertain, yet we tend to forget that fact) it serves us well to try to remember that everything is temporary. And yes, the dark times feel like they’ll last forever. They did for me when my life partner died in 2014. And then the next year was even worse. In fact, beginning with being downsized from my job in 2012, it all mostly fell apart. Life is better now. What has kept me alive through that, and indeed over the years, is remembering that things always improve. Difficult to remember when we’re on the bottom of the cup, but important. And working/allowing ourselves to live in the present moment (which is all we have) is the key to any lasting peace for me. Thank you for your work.

David Cain August 21, 2020 at 10:42 am

Looking back is extremely helpful. I remember being in moments that felt like absolute brick walls. The end of everything. But not only were they not the end of everything, but many many great experiences didn’t happen until after I experienced those brick walls.

Mac August 20, 2020 at 8:18 pm

Great post, David. Especially that last line.

The topic of “impossible” destinations is something I’m dealing with daily as I struggle my way to become a solo game developer.

Day in, day out I come home from a day job to spend time with my partner and two young children until they’re in bed. I then sit myself down and continue learning to program and design games as a solo developer.

It’s a grueling journey doing it on my own. My partner hasn’t shown an interest in my pursuit which makes the light that much further away when it’s dark. I see social media posts from devs I admire with their wonderful work and that too feels like a kick to the guts as a reminder of how far I have to go. I get to the point sometimes where I think my effort is best spent giving up and just cheering on those that *are* doing well.

I know it’s all just a trick though, the old perspective shift on the camera that makes it *seem* like the pin prick of light is moving away but in reality it never moved. The most unhelpful thing is that my personality is one where I hold myself to a high (perhaps unattainable) standard, so my default state is disappointment in myself. And thus the vicious cycle continues!

At least thanks to amazing resources like your blog, Headspace, Waking Up and general mindfulness I’ve become aware of the issues. I just have to find the techniques to push them aside, well out of the way.

Sorry for the ramble, this really hit home for me.

David Cain August 21, 2020 at 11:09 am

Hi Mac. For what it’s worth, I really admire your nightly quest to create what you know you really want. I resonate with that a lot and have always struggled to organize my efforts to create my own dream (for reasons I’ll post about soon). But I just want you to know that I’m doing it along with you and so are millions of us.

Sharron August 21, 2020 at 8:50 am

Beautiful post. “Bad times seem permanent when they are happening ” I remember the day my young husband died. I was 27 and honestly believed I would never smile again. That wasn’t true, of course.

David Cain August 21, 2020 at 11:14 am

Glad you are smiling again. It’s amazing what we can endure and return from.

Ellen Symons August 21, 2020 at 6:13 pm

I love this post. We need writing – fiction and non-fiction – to remind us of exactly this. “This feeling of being cut off from all viable paths is a natural response to having entered a new dark patch, but it’s an optical illusion created by low light conditions.” This will be in my journal for a while, until it’s in my head in a reliable fashion.

John August 22, 2020 at 9:27 am

This article is a powerful reminder that I will (hopefully) remember when the darkness closes in. I find it interesting that experiences on the other end of the joy/happiness spectrum don’t have the same quality of permanence.

Bobbi August 22, 2020 at 11:50 am

Your timing on this article…and your gift of putting words people need to hear, on paper, always blows me away. Thank you, David.

Lola August 24, 2020 at 8:27 am

I wish everyone that has ever committed suicide could read this it is The epitome of what it feels like when you have no hope left If they can just remember it is an Optical illusion they would never do it….

Lola August 24, 2020 at 8:36 am

I wish everyone that has ever committed suicide or thought of Committing suicide could read this it is The epitome of what it feels like when you have no hope left If they can just remember it is an Optical illusion they would never do it….

Christie Reed August 24, 2020 at 6:37 pm

This is gorgeous. I appreciate how in many of your posts you help people see that being human is a phenomenon that actually lives outside of the things our brain thinks it actually is. I have recently started a blog, which for the moment is really a conduit for my humanity to express itself, and in the process I hope others get value. I found your blog and it gave me inspiration for ways I could evolve my site eventually to make a difference for others. Thank you and thank you for what you are putting into the world!

Susie August 24, 2020 at 9:53 pm

How beautiful. And simple. I love this post and I hope I can remember it when I need to. Shalom,

Atara Weisberger August 25, 2020 at 9:06 pm

It is so rare for me to follow a blog in the first place. It’s even more rare for me to find writing that resonates as real, sincere, thoughtful, entertaining, and inspiring. And with no agenda other than to share and help others grow. Your writing style and content are really a breath of fresh air!

kruidigmeisje August 27, 2020 at 6:10 am

Thank you for the perspective. The years I have been battling depression days (not a full blown depression, but even so). In the swamps of depression, moving though the quackmire is hard and getting on any path seems impossible. Also because you don’t see any road to move to, let alone a road that would get you to a nicer place of any quality of nicer. You would not have a simple tip for the simple mind I have in those hours that I could hang on to, so I keep moving and hoping?

David Cain August 27, 2020 at 1:07 pm

Hi kruidigmeisje. The point I tried to make in this article is that the hard parts that seem like you’ve lost the path are also on the path. The good times, past and future, lie on the same meandering path as where you are now.

I’ve had a very difficult year, and what has helped most is acknowledging that while nothing seems to be the promising foothold I’m looking for, some choices do work better than others, so I try to do more of those things than the things that definitely don’t work. Then a month or two goes by, and while you’re still in the muck, it’s not quite the same muck. And once again you identify the choices that work better than the bad ones, and you choose them as much as you can. And repeat that pattern.

Linda Shaw August 28, 2020 at 5:49 am

David, that was another outstanding post. I woke up this morning feeling like I feel most mornings since my father died in a deep dark place. I can’t tell you what reading this did for me this morning. It gave me hope and to look for the light which I know is near. Thank you from my heart.
Linda

Susie B August 28, 2020 at 6:28 pm

Hi David. How do you cut so cleanly straight through to the heart of the matter? How do you know what I’m thinking and feeling? How do you channel a 68-year-old woman? I guess we truly are all in this human journey together. Thanks for such a helpful post.
Susie B

Carol August 31, 2020 at 3:25 am

You say “‘Here’ is always a fine starting place” and that reminded me of David Wagoner’s poem —

LOST by David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

-David Wagoner

jacqui September 1, 2020 at 2:37 pm

Your words are always timely and timeless, David. I often wonder how victims of heinous crimes, abused refugees searching for better opportunities, the homeless, the unemployed, the sick and the dying persevere. You have captured our saving grace–time . . . what we cling to while continuing on the ever-changing path of life. What has worked to help me through the dark patches, time & time again, is King Lear’s reminder:
“…the worse is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.”

Vincent September 11, 2020 at 5:50 am

This post has been of real service to me today. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, and thank you for having served this world with your work for as long as you have. Take care, David.

David Cain September 11, 2020 at 10:23 am

Thanks. You too Vincent.

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