October 1, 2020

Learning to Dance with Disappointment.

Are you the type of person who loves to plan and look forward to a vacation?

Do you enjoy the process of choosing places to stay and activities to enjoy while you are away? If you are anything like me, the anticipation is a large part of the fun.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were in the midst of planning a week’s holiday on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It had been almost a year since we had taken a trip for just the two of us, and I could hardly wait! Together, we found beautiful places to stay, and I imagined the big blue skies above the crashing waves of the ocean. We booked our tickets for the ferry ride and started packing.

Then this happened.

The forest fires to the south of us increased in size and intensity. The winds shifted and the smoke drifted into our province. We still chose to go on our vacation, and we drove to the ferry on a hazy morning. One of the best parts of an island vacation is the ferry ride—standing on the outer deck and watching for seals and maybe even a whale sighting makes for an exciting trip. I am mesmerized by the expanse of water and the big sky above, and I truly have the experience of “getting away from it all.”

Not this time.

I couldn’t see the water, or the horizon. As I stood by the railing, the blast of the foghorn startled me. The announcement was made: the foghorn would be sounding every five minutes for the entire ferry ride, due to the limited visibility. We went down to our car, closed the windows, and waited for the ride to end. I was frustrated and disappointed. However, I did my best to be objective about the situation. I knew it was important to stay safe, and I trusted the captain of the ship to do what was necessary. This helped me to accept the noise of the foghorn and the slower journey.

As we drove off the ferry and headed up the island highway, I realized that the smoke was thick and heavy here as well. My dreams of blue skies remained a dream. We found our cottage, settled in, and headed off for a walk on the beach. As we walked along the edge of the water, I had time to reflect on what was happening for me.

I was upset and angry. Why did this have to happen just when we booked our trip? How could we even enjoy the outdoors if the heavy smoke continued? Life wasn’t fair! I scuffed at the rocks and scowled in the foggy mist.

My husband reminded me that we could still enjoy our cottage and find things to do even if the sun wasn’t shining. I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t say much of anything. I wasn’t ready to “look on the bright side.”

The next day, we explored a forest trail that meandered beside a turbulent river with some spectacular falls. As I hiked the wooded path, I felt a sense of peace and calm. The air seemed less thick and smoky in the trees, and the sound of the rushing water soothed my sad heart. Was it possible for me to still enjoy my holiday?

I had moments of playful joy as the week went by, and yet, I often felt a deep sense of betrayal. I heard myself using the phrase: “This shouldn’t be.” From my past experience, I know that this phrase is one that leads me to a place of despair. I become a victim and wallow in the swamp of self-pity. It seemed that I was unable to switch out of this mood. I was sleeping poorly, and I found the darkness and smoky atmosphere depressing and energy draining.

One sleepless night, I got out of bed and sat with a cup of tea on the couch. It had been several days of haze, and there was still no clearing in sight. I was a hot mess of emotions. In the midst of my anger and sadness, I also felt shame at my lack of acceptance and at my selfish attitude. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I get over this? I called myself a failure and saw myself as an ungrateful person who was overly sensitive and easily irritated.

I remembered the words of a favourite author of mine.

Pema Chödrön, in her book, When Things Fall Apart, talks about working with chaos. Rather than avoiding the pain, she suggests breathing in the suffering and feeling the pain that all of us experience when we suffer. I am not alone, and I breathe in the desire that we all could be free of suffering. When I breathe out, I send out love and a wish for peace for all of us. She also encouraged me to feel all my emotions and allow them to flow through me. There was nothing to fix—just allow the experience to be.

What did I have to lose?

I let the tears fall. I fully felt my anger and disappointment. I admitted that this was not what I had envisioned for my vacation. Rather than shaming myself, I allowed the emotions to be present. It is an act of courage for me to be angry. I was taught as a young girl to “be nice” and “keep quiet” when upset. Just as a toddler takes a shuddering breath after a temper tantrum and settles into quietness, I am learning that expressing my anger authentically in a safe way leads me to a place of rest and spaciousness. Instead of downplaying my suffering, I felt it and witnessed myself in the moment.

Comparison is deadly, and this is true for suffering as well. Of course, there are many people suffering in the world. Perhaps my experience is not as bad as their situation, particularly, in this case, for those who were deeply affected by the fires. However, for each of us, what we are going through is still valid for us in that moment. Showing myself compassion and speaking kindly to myself is one way I move through times of sadness and disappointment.

I went back to bed and slept soundly. My perspective shifted after my dark night of the soul experience, and I was reminded of some principles that I wrote about in my book, Saying Yes to Life: Embracing the Magic and Messiness of the Journey.

Here are some of the guideposts that I followed over the next few days of our vacation.

1. Accepting What Is

I knew that my resistance to the smoke would not change anything. I chose to accept the reality of the situation, rather than staying angry and resentful. Acceptance signifies choice rather than resignation and victimhood.

2. Focusing on What I Have Control Over

When I accept what happens, I focus my energy on what I have control over. I let go of worrying about the details that are unknown and pay attention to my attitude. I look for what I can be grateful for and remind myself to imagine the possibility of adventure ahead.

As I let go of my anxiety, I relaxed and was more open to enjoying my husband’s company. Together, we planned activities that were fun and playful, discovering new hiking trails and lakes. The adventures didn’t stop because of the weather, and I was able to embrace the beauty around me.

3. Surrendering and Letting Go

When I don’t like how things are in the present moment, I remind myself to let go of my need for certainty. I sit with the discomfort of not knowing. This meant that I trusted that the smoke would lift when it was time. Meanwhile, I could hike in the woods or walk on the ocean beach even if the sun was not shining. That is what surrender looks like for me—letting go of what I think should be and embracing what is.

I am happy to say that the smoke lifted before our vacation ended, and we had several days of clear skies and ocean views. What brings me even more joy is the fact that I was able to transform my resistance and victimhood perspective before the smoke disappeared. I am glad that I could deepen into self-awareness and learn about the principles of acceptance, focusing on what I have control over and surrender. This is a lifelong journey for me, and I know I will have more opportunities to practice these skills.

I trust that my story will support you in times when you are stuck and suffering. Life is a mix of joy and upset. What is crucial for me to remember is that I can hold both of these emotions at once. I can be sad and still find joy in my life. I can be upset and be grateful at the same time for the gifts that show up.

This is the dance that we are called upon to embrace on this path called life.

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