June 26, 2023

How to Live in Hope & Gratitude—even when Sad, Tragic, Scary, Awful Things Happen.

Bad, sad, tragic, scary, awful things happen all the time.

This is just part of life.

We can think of the circle of life: bigger animals eat smaller animals. Those smaller animals want to live. They have a mother and a father, perhaps friends and their own families. It’s not fair that they are food to bigger animals. It’s not fair—it just is.

This isn’t a piece on the ethics of eating meat, but I make that point to say that even in the wild, bad and sad things happen. Animals that are prey instinctively want to avoid being captured, killed, and eaten. No living creature wants to die. Yet, all living creatures will die.

Most of my friends and I are in our 40s. We’re in that chapter of life where we have people on either side that depend on us to an extent—our aging parents and our fledgling children.

The pandemic heightened this sense of responsibility to protect those around us, the older and younger generations being more at risk than those of us in the middle. But pandemic or not, this has always been the case. Children and the elderly have always been more vulnerable than those of us in between, in middle age.

My friends and I ask each other, “Do you think this is just what it is to be an adult? The stress, worry, anxiety, and overwhelm? Was it like this for our parents when we were kids? Or is it worse now?”

We usually land on the answer that it’s probably both. Being an adult is just hard. Being responsible for the lives of others is an extremely heavy burden. No longer getting to live in childhood innocence is heavy. Having a job, paying bills, maintaining a home—it’s all heavy.

And also, things are harder now. With technology, we are bombarded with all the news from all around the world, and news tends to be sensational stories with shock value, which means it tends to be bad news.

At any given moment, there’s a bad, sad, tragic, scary, awful thing happening in the world. Multiple bad things happening simultaneously. Right at this moment, someone is getting shot, getting into a horrific car accident, or dying from cancer. Someone is finding out their spouse is cheating on them and a child is getting abused by a parent.

This is not okay—it just is.

As a child of trauma, I gravitate toward bad news. There’s a twisted familiarity, perhaps even a need for my trauma to be fed. It’s not that I want to live in trauma or in feeling bad. It’s that I survived my trauma by figuring out how to live with it, and there’s some wiring in my brain that mistakenly tells me that I need to keep living through trauma as part of surviving, as part of living.

It doesn’t feel good to live this way.

When I was a child, I needed to survive. A child doesn’t have a choice but to be cared for by their caretakers. We do whatever we need to in order to survive. We make excuses for our caretakers’ abuse or negligence. We compartmentalize, deny, and repress. When we make it out of our childhood alive, we think we need to continue this survival tactic, since that’s what got us this far.

Our nervous systems are hyperactive. We are always on the brink of fight, flight, or freeze. It manifests for me in the simplest moments, like last night when I didn’t hear the front door open when my husband came home and I gasped in genuine fright when I turned the corner and saw him. My heart rate instantly shot up as my body released adrenaline; my brain was quicker to register that it was only my husband and there was no need to jump into the emergency mode that my body was ready for.

“Oh, you scared me!” I said out loud and laughed, both as an apology to him for my uncouth greeting but also to tame myself.

I’ve gotten to know my anxiety better as I’ve been “doing the work.” Instead of untethering me from reality into full-blown panic, these days my anxiety pipes up as niggling thoughts, often about my health. A headache, eye twitch, even an itchy scalp make me think brain tumor. A zit on the back of my neck makes me think skin cancer. A heavy period makes me prepare to faint from blood loss. I worry my eczema will turn into an obscure, incurable skin infection or that I will suddenly form a new food allergy that will cause certain anaphylaxis.

Call it health anxiety or hypochondria—it boils down to a general feeling of things are not going to be okay.

Over the last few years, we collectively (whether or not we experienced trauma as children) have been living through various traumas. In 2020, I read about the PTSD that was waiting for us all on the other side of the pandemic, if we would be lucky enough to make it there. For many, this may have sounded alarmist, but I—and I would guess most other trauma survivors—knew it was likely.

Beyond the pandemic, we are living in the ever-emphatic threat of climate change, with many powerful people and corporations trying to distract and gaslight us from this truth. And for us Americans, we have the unique and horrific threat of being shot while simply going about our lives.

It is all too much.

And yet…threats have always existed and will always exist. They are a part of life. I am absolutely not saying that we should just accept weapons of mass destruction in America by any means. I follow gun reform activists, make donations, and call legislators. I do not believe in living with our heads buried in the sand, assuming “it can’t possibly happen to us.” It is happening to all of us, right now. We must take every action we can to fight for safety, equality, and simply what is right. We must fight to protect each other, most especially our precious children.

What I am saying—what I am reminding myself every day—is that bad news has always been and threats have always been. There has always been the possibility that when you get into your car, you could get into an accident, or that when you leave your home, you may not return. But what does it do to our minds, to our loved ones, and to our very aliveness to be constantly hyper-focused on these scary possibilities?

My tendency is to consume and absorb bad news. I tell myself I need to be informed, bear witness, and make an impact where I can. I allow the bad news to pile on. It all goes through my baseline of anxiety, which is already regularly processing fears around my health and safety, as well as our real and present collective traumas.

There are legitimate threats that we need to be aware of, but where is the line between feeling safe to walk out of your home and actually being in the line of fire? I will not live in denial or with a false sense of safety or invincibility. But does that mean I should live in paralyzing fear and never leave the house?

Most people I know do leave the house, but we likely all have varying degrees of awareness and concerns. Maybe there aren’t many people like me who, a couple weeks ago, took 10 steps into a Whole Foods in Brooklyn only to get a funny feeling and sprint out clutching my toddler without having bought a thing. But for most of us, it’s at least in the back of our minds that some evil, violent murderer could show up anywhere with an assault weapon. On the outside, it may look like we are all fine, going about our lives, but inside, what price are we paying?

On a post about school shootings, I read a flurry of comments from mothers:

I am thinking of pulling my kids out of school.

This is why I homeschool.

I cry and pray after every drop-off.

I don’t want to not go out but it is becoming increasingly overwhelming.

I don’t know how much more I can take.

With regards to our insane, life-threatening gun policies, all of these thoughts are completely valid. I am, again, absolutely not taking away from that or the need for each of us to fight for safety.

What I, as a trauma survivor and anxiety sufferer, recognize in the feelings and fears we’re all experiencing is that these are the same patterns of thinking and worrying that can be applied to all threats generally: getting hit by a bus, an air conditioning unit randomly falling on your head, the smaller animal getting eaten by the bigger animal. Our mortality is certain; we hope we are lucky enough to live a long and healthy life, but the end of our existence has been assured from our very first breath.

In this context, although the specific threats of a deadly virus and mass shootings have been current, the concept of threats generally is nothing new. Part of our work as humans is to be able to move through life knowing that we don’t have control and that we all have a limited time here.

So, I started to ask myself: how am I going to use this precious, finite time?

Am I going to keep feeding my own inner bad news cycle, which exacerbates my anxiety which then impacts my mood and how I show up for those I love? Or is it possible to allow for positivity where I can? To be grateful for the temperate days of spring that are here right now while doing what I can to combat climate change. To be grateful when I wake up to live, experience, and fight another day, my worries around an impending heart attack not being founded, at least not right now, not in this moment.

When I thought about things this way, instead of waking up and seeking bad news—in other words, feeding my fear and anxiety—I found myself able to feel into the potential of what might be ahead. Spending time with my gorgeous family. The euphoric scents of a coffeeshop’s freshly ground beans and freshly baked pastries. The buzz of sunshine, the coziness of rain. It really is the little things, the mundane things, when you think about it, isn’t it? When you think of what you’d be most afraid of losing, it’s literally just the people you love and your ability—through sound physical and mental health—to love them.

Maybe this is what the great mystics and teachers meant when they said things like, the answer is simply love and gratitude. I’ve been angry with these sentiments in the past because they can feel like spiritual bypassing and they can be harmful, such as when people claim things like they “don’t see color” or their answer to gun violence is to just “manifest positive vibes.”

But I think inundating myself, my limited energy and headspace, with bad news has also been harmful. I can’t show up to fight for the causes I believe in, I can’t show up with joy for my family, I can’t enjoy this life let alone evolve and thrive—which surely is the entire point of existing—when I’m overwhelming myself with all the bad, sad, tragic, scary, awful things that are happening.

I have to be able to hold multiple truths simultaneously. There are scary things and there are beautiful, funny, heartwarming, awe-inspiring things. There’s good and there’s evil. This has been and will always be. Most of the time, most of us are fortunate enough to at least have some amount of the good. It’s important, even urgent, to not only recognize the good but to be deeply grateful for it. To never take it for granted. To intentionally feed that part of our brains—the part that fills us up with purpose and strength—more than our fear, anxiety, and trauma, which only makes us feel powerless and hopeless.

My two-year-old daughter has been watching the Trolls films on repeat. The two main trolls are happy-go-lucky, full of color Poppy and always-ready-for-the-worst, literally colorless Branch. Branch spends his time on the lookout for Bergens, who eat trolls in order to get a taste of happiness. He mostly stays in his bunker. Poppy is always trying to get him to sing, dance, hug, and enjoy life. When several trolls are taken by the Bergens, Poppy drags Branch on a rescue mission. Branch is convinced that the trolls will already have been eaten but Poppy is full of hope.

Branch says: The world isn’t all cupcakes and rainbows…Bad things happen and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Poppy replies: Hey I know it’s not all cupcakes and rainbows. But I’d rather go through life thinking that it mostly is.

What Branch says is true—bad things happen, and we don’t always have control. But I have to agree with Poppy. I, too, would rather go through life being able to see and be grateful for the cupcakes and the rainbows that do exist. I think it’s only from a place of hope that we can live, love, thrive, and fight for what’s right.


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