This week could easily have been written by George R. R. Martin – amongst my family, friends, and staff, there have been four deaths, two cancer diagnoses, a major heart surgery, the dissolution of a special partnership and, to add insult (and fear) to injury, the outcome of America’s presidential election.
I had a moment on Friday morning when I woke up and, faced with the prospect of my fifth day of back-to-back meetings on top of my throbbing heart, thought “I don’t think I can do this today.” But as I lay there a little while longer, several things occurred to me.
I’ve been reading a lot from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes lately, a Jungian Analyst who breaks down what fairytales and folklore tell us about the development of the human psyche. I had started the week musing on ‘The Skeleton Woman’ – an ancient Inuit story about a fisherman who accidentally pulls up a female skeleton from the sea, and through her being tangled in his fishing line, she appears to chase him from sea to shore and all the way across the tundra into his house. He’s terrified, but eventually he realises that she’s just a poor tangled up skeleton and not a demon intent on his demise, and he feels compassion for her, and he lays her out with all of her bones in the right way and puts a fur around her. While the story of the Skeleton Woman ends with her restoration back to life, the part of the story that really resonated with me was the fisherman’s terror about the Skeleton Woman as the figure of death, his attempt to flee from her, and then his eventual (peaceful) facing of her and seeing her as she was. In the early moments of their interaction, we see all of the discomfort, terror, wounding and fear of death that so many of us hold.
Estes uses the story to delve into the Life/Death/Life cycles that govern nature and relationships. For example: A seed bursts, sprouts, grows, blooms, degenerates, dies… and again. And again. And again. Every year. No part of that cycle is greater than the other, but in Western culture we so often prioritise the joy of Life over the loss of Death. We want things to be in bloom all the time.
At the start of the week it became pretty clear to me that I was heading into the Death component of the Life/Death/Life cycle – a time of endings and transitions into new ways of being – and I was going to have to become comfortable with the Skeleton Woman traipsing along with me in it. That is, I was going to have to face my discomfort, terror, wounding and fear of death (endings), if I was going to be of any use to any one of the people suffering around me.
Over the course of the week I consciously tried to do the following:
Accept: I accepted that Death is an inevitable and valuable part of the cycle, and I started asking myself what I could learn from it. I’ve been sustained all week by a line from Estes: “Whatever will be, will be transformative.” I can’t imagine a better promise – that regardless of where I am in the cycle, I can learn and grow from it.
Know who you want to be: The questions I kept asking myself were “What is required of me? How do I want to be in all of this?” Create a vision for what ‘you walking through this situation in alignment with your values’ looks like. On Friday morning, the thing that got me out of bed was the thought of Hillary Clinton probably facing the same dilemma on a much bigger scale, the question of “How do I front up to a hard reality with grace?” If she could get out of bed to do just that, then so could I.
Reframe the situation: I reframed what was happening as an opportunity to enlarge my capacity to serve others during hard times, and as an opportunity to model the kind of caring and stoicism that I’ve seen both of my grandmothers (one of whom died this week) display throughout their lives.
Honour what you need: I decided that I would create space for my true feelings to be, whilst also not falling into a heap. This looked like me checking in very regularly with myself about what I needed – and on Friday morning that was going to work, and on Friday night it was begging off my social engagements.
Keep attached to the bigger picture: I keep giving myself a good dose of perspective: I don’t know what real suffering is. I’ve had the enormous good fortune to be born as a white female to university educated parents in a country where education is valued and my gender isn’t too much of a hindrance. I don’t know war. I don’t know poverty. I don’t know a situation where I’m treated like a second-rate citizen because of my gender or my race or my sexual orientation. I don’t fear stepping on landmines or having to walk 10 km a day to get water. I haven’t just lost an enormous election campaign to someone who could not be more unfit to hold office, and who may end up causing me to come to know war and poverty in the future. Ultimately, my life is good – endings and all.
I know that 2016 has been a very hard year for many people, and you have my sympathies and love in that. I hope more than anything that we can keep choosing to make each situation that we find ourselves in better (not neutral, and not worse) for our involvement.