In the book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why,Laurence Gonzales tells the story of a firefighter who winds up lost on a mountain. For two days, he thrashes about, growing more and more panicked. All along, as his disorientation increases, he believes that he’s just around the corner from his destination -a fresh water lake that should be right over the next crest if he’s where he thinks he is.But of course, he’s not where he thinks he is. He’s misread the map – several times – and wandered into deep wilderness. Now, his frantic searching only takes him farther from his goal.
Finally, at the end of the second day, exhausted, depleted, seriously dehydrated, with the beginning signs of hypothermia, he makes a choice that will, ultimately save his life: He stops moving. He builds a fire, cobbles together a shelter using his rain poncho and a pile of sticks and hunkers down. He rests, regains his strength, looks around. He stops trying to escape his situation – and turns to meet it.This pause saved his life.
By accepting his situation and asking: How will I meet this? he was able to adapt to an unfamiliar situation and live until a few days later, when he was rescued.
Though few of us will ever face that kind of wilderness, each of us will certainly face our own. We will, inevitably, lose someone we love; some of us will suffer grave illness; some will face financial losses and the loss of identity, community and self-esteem that will bring. Alzheimers, broken bones, allergic reactions, fire, floods. I don’t mean to depress you – but this is how it is. It’s just life, all messy and tossed together.
Sooner or later, we will be thrust into the wilderness – and we will have to decide how to meet it.
As I write this, my daughter is meeting a different kind of wilderness. A freshman film student, Katie shot 15 rolls of film for her final assignment only to discover, during the editing process, that she’d forgotten to get any closeups – and that the script she’d been shooting from simply wasn’t holding together.
She had 14 days to fix it. She didn’t have any money. Her teacher said, “If you don’t hand something in, you’re out of the program.”I knew Katie would be fine. Her resilience would allow her to adapt, adjust, and learn the new terrain of her situation. She’d build a fire and make a shelter out of whatever materials she had. She’d throw out the old script and write a new one, a better one. What I mean is, she would not wait for rescue: She’d rescue herself.But given what I’ve learned about my daughter these past 19 years, I also knew that Katie would probably have to spend a little time sobbing first. It’s one of the ways that she meets things. Always has.She gets that from me. We emote. We let stuff build up – and then we let it out. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s important.
Feel your feelings.
My friend’s therapist told her that the best way to meet suffering is often, “Turn around and sit down inside of it.” I love that image. Turn around and sit down inside of it. Stop running. Don’t push it away. Let it come toward you and when it does, turn around and meet it. Sit down inside of it.In other words, cry if you feel like crying; pour your heart out to God, if that’s your thing; let all the black tar of the thing loosen and shift, and if there’s a geyser of icky junk that needs to spill forth, let it spill.Acceptance
The other day in yoga class, our teacher read us a poem, from the Sufi poet, Rumi. In it, there were these lines:Learn the alchemy of what true human beings know
The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given
The door will open.
I’ve had my doubts about this principle in the past and today, I lay on my yoga mat at the end of class and I thought about it. What does it mean to “accept what troubles you’ve been given”?
And then, as so often happens when I am holding a question open in my heart, life answers me.
I was walking to my car when a friend, whose teenage son is struggling with a serious illness, caught up with me. With tears in her eyes, she said, “Everyone says, ‘Accept it. Accept it.’ I don’t want to accept this. I want to run a million miles away from here. I feel like my head is going to explode.”
And then I understood…
What acceptance isn’t
Acceptance or “embracing what comes” does not require us to talk ourselves into being happy that we have this pain, this cancer, this headache, this divorce, this sick baby, this death in the family. We are not throwing a party, pretending to be happy, denying what has been dropped on our doorstep.
But acceptance also isn’t about giving up. It’s not saying, “Oh well, okay. I guess I will let this thing drop a bomb on my life and I will just lie here and let it roll over me.”
Acceptance means turning to meet what comes. It means feeling your feelings – crying when you’re sad; shouting when you’re angry; wailing when you’re in despair. It means including the bad stuff into the wholeness of our lives – not pushing against it, not denying or burying or disowning the problem (or the person who presents it to us.) Embracing says to the problem: Okay, here you are. Let’s see what you’ve brought to me.
And then, if you are into this kind of thing, you can call upon the forces of the universe. Dear God, you can pray. Please, help!
The angels won’t just swoop in and fix everything that isn’t working in our lives. More often, they let us know: We are here; supporting you, and this reassurance may be enough.
Or it may not.
We may need more time in the wilderness – more tears. But sooner or later we will get to the bottom of this thing, sooner or later we will sigh and shrug our shoulders and say, “Okay, here I am. What is there to learn here?” We will build a fire and put up a shelter using the materials at hand: Our curiosity, our determination to feel better, the support of our own particular kind of angels.
Human beings are remarkably resilient.
Ultimately, as the 14th century mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich once wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” And all will be well. After you’ve been through hell and are still here, after you’ve endured the storm, you may just find, as all of the women I interviewed did, that you’re stronger, more determined and more in love with life than ever before.
You will find that under the icky black glop, there’s a clear spring of hope and even, joy. You will. I promise.
This is what we mean when we talk about “the gift of difficult experience” – every locked door becomes a potential opening onto a new room of experience; every dead end, every barrier, is an invitation to draw a new map.
(Reprinted from my blog, originally posted, April 16, 2010)