As a warning this post contains mentions of suicides that have occurred in the past year. Please be aware if you feel your mental health could be affected.
Finding your rhythm
Speed, or relative speed is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years. I was always the last one to finish eating in my family. Everyone else would be putting their dishes away while I was still making my way through half of the food left on my plate. I appreciated that my parents let me eat at my pace. But it also made me feel “slow,” which is something that we don’t tend to value much in the United States.
I even wrote my college essay about how I visited a Buddhist monastery for a weekend towards the end of high school. I was taken aback by not only encountering other people who ate at my pace (a.k.a. the monks!), but where taking time to do things slowly and intentionally was actually the goal.
It was one of those bizarre moments where you recognize the implicit comfort that comes from feeling similar to the other people around you; finding your ‘birds of a feather’ so to speak. It triggered the softening that happens when you suddenly release stress that you didn’t know was there; it reveals itself to you in its absence.
In retrospect, it’s not surprising that that was my response given that feelings of social “belonging” have a huge impact on our sense of self and well being. A low sense of belonging can be a predictor for depression. It’s an important underlying reason why marginalized communities often build support networks to create spaces of belonging.
That experience helped me to understand that (beyond eating) my natural rhythm for many things is slower than a lot of the folks around me. So, I often feel a low-level stress to be “faster” or prove that I can be.* American culture places implicit value on many characteristics that stem from or support a market-based economy where being “good” is being fast or highly productive (sometimes at the expense of substance).**
Last fall, during a time when some of this stress was resurfacing, I was working at home, sitting in the chair in my bedroom. I looked up at the window to see a large praying mantis hanging out in the top left-hand corner. I spent awhile looking up at her (I googled to check — bigger praying mantises are female) and went to bed thinking “that was special that she visited me for the evening.”
But when I woke up, I was even more surprised to find that she was still there. I went out and about my day, but when I came back she was still in her spot. And so it was for the next few days. I’d go to sleep thinking “well that was special” and wake up only to find her still there.
So like you do, I turned to the internet to look up more about praying mantises. It turns out that they’re known for their stillness. They remain still to wait for prey to approach and then quickly strike. They’re very effective hunters. It’s both their capacity to wait and then act quickly when the time is right that gives them their advantage. And like the monks, I was grateful for her reminder to me to be confident in my stillness, until I decide to act.
Time and Healing
There are also times when our need for stillness or to take time to process comes as a direct response to an event or set of circumstances. For example, when I launched this website in March I thought “I’m going to post something once a month — that seems reasonable,” but then life had other plans for me. I lost a very young family member to suicide, quit my job and decided to start a new company. The loss of someone so young, sweet and smart shocked me into a different kind of stillness — an awareness that none of the things I was worrying about were worth anything to me in the long run. Without finding a way back to being centered in who I am, in my pace and my joy, none of it is worth it.
“Ad astra per aspera”
This is a Latin saying that was shared at the funeral that means “to the stars through hardship.” And I thought, for him and for myself — that’s what I’m going to try to do …keep finding my way to the stars. Cause Earthseed baby.
Learning how to show up and say “this isn’t where I thought I was going to be, and that’s okay” that’s my goal. Because it means not hiding, being unafraid to show up in your fullness in the way that can only happen when you accept all of the parts of yourself — the parts you like and the parts you might not like as much.
That doesn’t mean making excuses for bad or destructive habits, but it does mean not judging or punishing yourself in ways that paralyze you into in inaction or compound existing problems. It’s okay and even helpful sometimes to set expectations and markers for yourself, so long as they don’t become new barriers to the ultimate goal of being free and comfortable in who you are.
If you’re doing it right — life just gets more unexpected as you go, changes open up new possibilities you hadn’t considered. But you also learn where your body is in space. You learn what you like and what you don’t like, how to better articulate what you need and want. So, you’re never really lost even though you can’t see what’s next.
There’s another person who died by suicide this year who’s words about that have stuck with me. I remember hearing Anthony Bourdain being interviewed on the radio a few years back, and the host asked him “So what’s next for you?” — a question that has been asked of most of us at some point in our lives and I have often felt incapable of answering in any meaningful way. So, his answer was music to my ears.
He said, “I don’t think about my life that way. I make decisions based off of a few simple principles — to enjoy my life, respect the people I work with and not have any regrets. When I go to make a decision I just come back to these principles.” Hearing his response to the question I felt like I finally had my answer. I don’t need to know what’s next if I know myself — it will follow.
Recently, a good friend took me to swim with the polar bears in Martha’s Vineyard. The polar bears are a morning swim club started by African American women that’s been meeting every morning at 7:30am from July 4th to Labor Day since 1947. Their mantra shows that they learned this lesson a long time ago.
“I am the source of my joy and infinite possibilities.”
Circumstances matter — our environments have a huge influence on us, so this is not to discount that reality, but to ask, “How can I learn not to stand in my own way?” Life is going to throw me all kinds of things I can’t predict — that’s a constant. So, how can I change what I’m carrying around when something new kicks up some dust?
As one friend said to me after Trump was elected, “Now we have to be the rudder for ourselves — we have to be the calm in the storm.” And I think she’s right. I’m trying to teach myself that it’s okay to mourn the loss of one possible future — an idea of where you thought you would be or what you thought you wanted, but there are so many more — and I am the one who carries them.
I don’t carry baggage. I carry my future.
* This realization reminded of me of a book I had growing up, Leo the Late Bloomer, about a little tiger who takes longer than the other animals to learn how to read, write, speak and eat. Here’s an animated version of the book. It’s a great one to share with little ones to start planting the seeds that moving at their own pace, even if it’s different than everyone else’s, is okay. Eventually they’ll bloom!
** It’s important to note that that sense of “productivity as worth” in American culture comes from the centrality of white supremacy in it’s birth. We all have internalized ways of valuing ourselves and others based on those norms. If you want to read more, check out this break down from Dismantling Racism of how cultural norms of perfectionism, urgency, defensiveness, and quantity over quality stem from white supremacy culture and strategies for addressing them. AlJazeera also took an interesting look at the relationship between Trump’s rhetoric around immigration and productivity as it relates to white supremacy and ableism.
Image credit: Jeremy Thomas