Finding Light in Darkness

In the morning, I sit with a cup of coffee and organize myself for the day. I watch the sunrise over the lake by my home and I listen to the sounds of the sparrows and wrens. Orioles come and go from our grape jelly feeder and each one makes me smile. I breathe deeply for 10 breaths to ground myself in my body. I remind myself of my many blessings and set my attitude to positive. My old calico, Glessie, sits by my side. Even though I am ragged with grief at the news of the world, I am ready to face whatever happens next.

Over the decades, I’ve acquired skills for building a good day. Especially in the summer, when I can swim, work in my garden, attend outdoor concerts and read in my hammock, life is fun. I have work I enjoy — sponsoring an Afghan family, participating in an environmental group and writing.

Of course, I am leading a double life. Underneath my ordinary good life, I am in despair for the world. Some days, the news is such that I need all my inner strength to avoid exhaustion, anxiety and depression. I rarely discuss this despair. My friends don’t either. We all feel the same. We don’t know what to say that is positive. So, we keep our conversations to our gardens, our families, books and movies and our work on local projects. We don’t want to make one another feel hopeless and helpless.

Many of us feel we are walking through sludge. This strange inertia comes from the continuing pandemic, a world at war and the mass shootings of shoppers, worshipers and schoolchildren. In addition, our country and our planet are rapidly changing in ways that are profoundly disturbing. We live in a time of groundlessness when we can reasonably predict no further than dinnertime. The pandemic was a crash course in that lesson.

As we are pummeled with daily traumatic information, more and more of us shut down emotionally. I can hear the flatness in the newscasters’ voices, see the stress in my friends’ faces and sense it in the tension of the workers at my sister’s nursing home. We are not apathetic; we are overwhelmed. Our symptoms resemble those of combat fatigue.

The most informed and compassionate among us are the most vulnerable to despair. We understand the brokenness and the sorrow in our own and faraway communities. We are also fully aware of all the things we cannot change. Staying focused on the light in the world is hard work.

Of course, America isn’t eastern Ukraine, Afghanistan or Yemen, but nonetheless, we are a lonely, frightened people who have lost hope in the future. Any psychologist knows that is a dangerous place to be. We risk losing our ability to think clearly or experience life completely. We lose our vitality and sense of direction. We cannot help others. We cannot fix anything.

In times like these, we need world-class coping skills just to stay fully awake, enjoy our lives and be of service to others. My life lessons come from many places, but I’ll focus on three sources — my maternal grandmother, the study of psychology and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn.

My grandmother raised five children on a ranch in eastern Colorado during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. She was an educated woman, but she lived a life of poverty and hard work. When she and my grandfather were in their 60s, they sold their small ranch and moved into a small stucco house in town. They planted a big garden, gooseberry bushes and a peach orchard. They rarely left town and my grandmother died a widow with less than a thousand dollars to her name. Her life was simple, but her mind was not.

She was my first mentor for building inner resources and developing integrity. She urged me to “be the person you want to live with every day of your life.”

As Grandmother and I stemmed green beans or did dishes, we would discuss the moral questions of the day, and with my grandmother, there were always moral questions. I loved these deep conversations with her, and not surprisingly, I adopted many of her ways of thinking.

She was a model of forbearance, always cheerful and curious. Even on her deathbed, she asked about my high school classes and the books I was reading. And the last time I saw her, she told me her life goal had been “to leave the world a better place.”

Psychology teaches that the best way to cope with suffering is to face it. We must feel it in our bodies, explore its meaning and then muster our inner resources to move forward. We find ways to balance our despair with joy. We reach out to our friends and family. We find a way to help another person. Action is always an antidote to despair.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and Zen master, witnessed great suffering in Vietnam during both the French and the American wars. To help himself and his followers deal with their anger, fear and heartbreak, he developed mindfulness practices. He taught his followers to breathe deeply and slowly, and to anchor themselves in the present moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say: “Present moment. Beautiful moment.”

Yet even as he emphasized meditation, he created the Youth for Social Service to help his war-torn country. At great risk, his group helped the homeless, set up medical units and rebuilt schools. For this, he was banished from Vietnam. He founded a new school of Buddhism called “engaged Buddhism,” and from his home in Plum Village, France, he worked for peace and a sustainable planet. His deepest teaching concerned our interconnection with all of life. We all share the same consciousness as the frightened schoolchild; the hungry, homeless refugee; the polar bears; and the ravaged forests.

Most of us cannot be great heroes. However, we all have the capacity to be ordinary heroes. We may not be able to stop the global use of plastics, but we can work with local environmental groups. We cannot eliminate prejudice or nuclear weapons. However, we can deliver Meals on Wheels or repair bikes for giveaway programs.

Only with heightened coping skills will we be able to rise above our shell shock and be who we want to be. All of us have the capacity to do this, and when we do, we will increase our own happiness and be of greater service to those around us. Lao-Tse expresses this point in his poem that begins, “If there is to be peace in the world/There must be peace in the nations,” and ends with “If there is to be peace in the home/There must be peace in the heart.”

Last night I sat on my porch and watched a storm in the southeastern sky. Bolt after bolt of cloud-to-cloud lightning illuminated the towering thunderheads. An owl flew over en route to his favorite pine tree. Frogs croaked. Dogs barked in the distance. As I watched this scene, I thought to myself: Life is so terrible and beautiful at the same time. Do I have the capacity to hold it all in my heart?

Mary Pipher is a clinical psychologist and the author, most recently, of “A Light in Life: Meditations on Impermanence.”

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