Out of helplessness

give

I started this blog late last year to explore what I’ve taken to call­ing the Inside of the Down­turn – the psy­cho­log­i­cal impact of the Great Reces­sion and its after­math. Lots was being writ­ten about prac­ti­cal strate­gies for regroup­ing – how to retool your resume, develop a brand, do an effec­tive job search – but very lit­tle on the issue of how to hold steady in these tur­bu­lent times.

Or rather, much was being writ­ten, but lit­tle of it seemed use­ful. Stay opti­mistic! Be resilient!  Uh, sure. But how?

For answers, I turned to per­sonal sto­ries. That’s how I became a reg­u­lar reader of writer Brett Paesel’s Last of the Bohemi­ans. Both pro­foundly funny and pro­foundly wise, Pae­sel offers an object les­son in what it means to do the best you can at a time when the path ahead is any­thing but clear. One of the most valu­able qual­i­ties for Plan B Nation is equa­nim­ity. Here, Pae­sel talks about find­ing this bal­ance, its chal­lenges – and its gifts.   

by Brett Pae­sel

I have always been drawn to philoso­phies and spir­i­tual teach­ings that empha­size the impor­tance of bal­ance in our lives. Striv­ing for per­sonal equa­nim­ity makes per­fect sense to me. We should be indus­tri­ous, but also know when to relax. We should exer­cise our bod­ies as well as our minds. We should seek bal­ance between art and sci­ence, giv­ing and tak­ing, our heads and our hearts. The Aris­totelian ideal of find­ing the golden mean – the desir­able mid­dle between two extremes – is enor­mously com­pelling to me.

Because I’m lousy at it.

I can swing between moments of eupho­ria and total despon­dency within sec­onds. Just like my eight-year-old, Mur­phy. One minute he’s declar­ing that his new light-up YoYo is “the best inven­tion ever” and the next he’s crum­pled on the floor, the bro­ken toy in his hand, howl­ing, “Why? Why? Why?”

Yes, appar­ently I have the emo­tional matu­rity of an eight-year-old. A cou­ple of Christ­mases ago, my father asked the whole fam­ily to close our eyes and hold hands around the table while we lis­tened to a gor­geous aria that he loved. After a minute or two of rev­er­ent, head bow­ing around the pot roast, I got antsy and felt trapped. I started to gig­gle and then to sput­ter and cough when I tried to rein it in. After­wards, in the kitchen, my mother said through a clenched jaw that she wasn’t sur­prised at my behav­ior: “We all know what you’re like Brett.” And she was right. Every­one who knows me knows how hope­less I am at mar­shalling my emotions.

So how is it that some­one like me has made it through the last cou­ple of years?

After the eco­nomic crash, my husband’s and my income has dwin­dled down to a quar­ter of what it was. Which meant that we had to drain all of our accounts. We are in the process of declar­ing bank­ruptcy, los­ing our health insur­ance, and strug­gling daily to cre­ate a sense of nor­malcy for our two sons. Last sum­mer when the IRS put a lien on our check­ing account, freez­ing any remain­ing money we had, I screamed at my hus­band that I hated him and I wanted a divorce.

Our eco­nomic woes, by the way, are not solely his fault. We both have under-earned and mis­man­aged our money. But I don’t want to talk about eco­nomic fool­ish­ness right now. Even though I can. I’m an expert. What I want to talk about is help­less­ness – that feel­ing that we can­not con­trol any­thing, not even the basics, and that we can­not pre­vent a cat­a­stro­phe from slam­ming us into obliv­ion. How do you pre­vail over the debil­i­tat­ing feel­ing of help­less­ness? And if you’re some­one like me, who gets knocked around by their own emo­tions on a reg­u­lar day, how do you uncurl your­self from the metaphoric ball you have pulled your­self into under the covers?

First, you start at the bot­tom. Since you are there any­way. You remind your­self of what actu­ally DOES work in your life. You’re not going to divorce your hus­band because despite the stress of the past few years, he still makes you laugh, is a good kisser, and loves you even though he, like your mother, “knows what you’re like.” Your kids are healthy and happy. You enjoy your work (in this case, you’re a writer) and your friends still like you even though they, too, know what you’re like.

Once you’ve remem­bered that some of your life has worked out pretty damned nicely, you start to make choices. Because I have come to believe that the road from feel­ing help­less to resource­ful, even happy, is made one choice at a time.

When I found myself at my low­est point, I first had to choose to choose. You see, feel­ing help­less can be very com­fort­ing, even lux­u­ri­ous. After all, no one requires any­thing from some­one who is truly help­less. No one asks a new­born to make din­ner. There is an abdi­ca­tion of respon­si­bil­ity in adult help­less­ness that I found deeply attrac­tive and kind of sexy. At times, I had felt like the French Lieutenant’s woman, star­ing out to sea – the wind flap­ping my long cape around — wait­ing patiently, sex­ily, for some­one to save me.  Most of the time, how­ever, feel­ing help­less was sim­ply boring.

So, for me, there was a point when it became unten­able. Unsus­tain­able. And I didn’t have a long cape. What I did have were chil­dren who needed me and a mar­riage that required tend­ing. So the first choice I made was to actu­ally start mak­ing choices – which lead to choos­ing to eat bet­ter, exer­cise, and get more sleep. That made me feel a lit­tle more capa­ble, but not that much more. Because noth­ing had fun­da­men­tally shifted. My finan­cial sit­u­a­tion cer­tainly hadn’t. The only dif­fer­ence I could point to was being able to fit back into my skinny jeans.

It was clear that what needed to change was my mind­set. Surely, if I were a hap­pier, I would be more adept at han­dling life’s chal­lenges. So I started small and sim­ply. I decided to con­sciously fill my life with things that I enjoyed and I endeav­ored to let go of things that made me mis­er­able. Know­ing that on a prag­matic level, I couldn’t just let go of pay­ing bills, for exam­ple. Which def­i­nitely made me mis­er­able. But you get the point.

When I thought about what made me happy, the list was quite long and very doable. “Breath­ing” was at the top. I really like to breathe and so I decided to do a lot of breath­ing in pretty places. In fact, I decided to slow down in a num­ber of ways. Which may sound like help­less­ness, but is quite the oppo­site. This was not iner­tia, but focus. It was attention.

What, I won­der, are the lit­tle joys that you could dou­ble up on? Or triple up on?

As long as it’s not vodka. It might be worth considering.

Dur­ing this period of time, I also thought about joy­ful activ­i­ties that had some­how dropped away when I was pulled into the tide of help­less­ness. One of those had been read­ing nov­els. Some­where along the line, I had for­got­ten to read.

I also reclaimed the joy of cry­ing. In my dark­est days, I started to believe that if I cried, I might never stop. But you do stop. In fact, in my expe­ri­ence, you stop much faster if you fully invest. Once I started cry­ing again, I felt bet­ter. More con­nected and, strangely enough, more able to feel joy. Sounds a lot like bal­ance. (If you need more cry­ing in your life, I highly rec­om­mend see­ing bad roman­tic come­dies in the mid­dle of the day. Almost no one is in the the­ater and you can bawl your eyes out. Any­thing star­ring Drew Bar­ry­more or Sarah Jes­sica Parker will do the trick.)

And while you’re in the busi­ness of choos­ing to fill up on activ­i­ties that make you happy, you might choose to let go of some stuff too. I let go of a cou­ple of unsup­port­ive friend­ships, which was painful but nec­es­sary. But I also tried to let go of com­plain­ing and blam­ing. That was even harder. Because com­plain­ing can be fun and it’s a group sport.

And blam­ing had to go because blam­ing is the bat­tle song of helplessness.

Let me pause here to say that there were days when I was more suc­cess­ful at mak­ing these choices than oth­ers. But on the days when I slipped up, choos­ing to for­give myself was awfully powerful.

And here is an almost coun­ter­in­tu­itive choice that I made in the midst of mak­ing all kinds of choices: When I felt at my worst. When I was spent and felt that I had noth­ing left to give. I decided to give more.

A friend of mine is a run­ner and he once told me that when he feels tired and is con­vinced that he can’t go on, he runs harder. He runs faster. And it gives him more energy to fin­ish his run.

I believe that it’s the same with giv­ing. When you’ve got noth­ing, give more. It feels good. It con­nects you to the world. And you find that you have more than you thought you did. Call a friend who is hav­ing a hard time. Vol­un­teer. Help some­one carry their gro­ceries up the steps. Giv­ing made me feel resource­ful. Which is the oppo­site of helpless.

Your choices might be very dif­fer­ent than mine. I know that mine don’t tend to be prag­matic in a worldly sense. And, to that end, my out­ward cir­cum­stances haven’t shifted that dra­mat­i­cally. But I don’t feel help­less any­more. In fact, I feel quite capa­ble. And I cer­tainly feel more bal­anced than I have in the past – either in good times or in bad. Because mak­ing active choices means con­scious­ness. It means refus­ing to wait pas­sively for fate or an intem­per­ate god to put up a road­block or toss you a bone.

And what I have dis­cov­ered is that all of my choices fall under the umbrella of the big ques­tion I ask myself every morn­ing when I wake up.

Which is, “Am I going to keep lying here or am I going to get up and participate?”

Mary Oliver ends one of her famous poems like this:

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life some­thing par­tic­u­lar, and real

I don’t want to find myself sigh­ing and frightened

Or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up sim­ply hav­ing vis­ited this world.

So for me, the choice – the big choice – is always whether to con­tinue lying on that bed or to get up and walk out the door. To be a part of the world and not just a visitor.

So far, the deci­sion has been easy. Eas­ier than I would have thought.

Brett Pae­sel is the author of the Los Ange­les Times best­seller Mom­mies Who Drink and the blog Last of the Bohemi­ans. Her work has appeared in numer­ous national pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing the New York Times and Salon. She also writes for television.

Note: This post first appeared on Last of the Bohemi­ans and is repub­lished with permission.